On 25 November 1895, Camille Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien. He described how he had bumped into his erstwhile protégé, Paul Gauguin, who had explained to him how artists in the future would ‘find salvation by replenishing themselves’ from the works of remote peoples and places. Pissarro was not convinced. Gauguin, he grumbled, was always ‘poaching’ from someone. Once it had been Pissarro and his fellow impressionists, now it was the native peoples of Oceania.
Plus ça change… Over the succeeding century and a quarter, Gauguin (1848–1903) has frequently been condemned. The magnificent new exhibition at the National Gallery, Gauguin Portraits, is a treat for the eye, full of superb loans, including not only paintings and works on paper, but wildly inventive sculpture in wood and clay too.
Nonetheless, there is an accompanying tone of criticism to which not all famous dead artists would be subject. Even the authors of catalogue essays and wall texts feel obliged to tick him off. Gauguin’s self-portraits, of which there is a superb selection in the opening room, one reads in the catalogue, are ‘self-promotion’, advertisements for himself.
Beside the door of the room devoted to the works of his first period in Tahiti, wonderfully rich and strange in colour, one reads that ‘in Gauguin’s day, European colonial and misogynistic fantasies about Polynesian women were widespread’. But the artist ‘did more than most in acting these out’. He exploited his position as a westerner to ‘make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him’.
It’s all true, and it’s also the case that the views of Gauguin’s various teenaged brides are not recorded (there is, though, a photograph of his Polynesian descendants standing by his grave in the Marquesas). What’s more, Gauguin himself might well have agreed with much of the censure.
His presentation of himself, whether dishonestly ‘self-serving’ or not, sometimes had a Mephistophelean edge. In one extraordinary picture — unfortunately not included in the exhibition — he painted himself as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, apples dangling beside his head, nonchalantly holding a smaller viper between his fingers like a cigarette. But — and with Gauguin there usually was another side to the question — above his head there floats a halo.
Saint or sinner? Gauguin often presented himself as torn between the two. In his ‘Self- Portrait with Yellow Christ’ (1890–91), which is on show, he is standing in front of two of his own works. On the left is a crucifixion — in which Christ looks a bit like Gauguin himself. On the other side is his stylised ceramic ‘Anthropomorphic Pot’ (1889), which, he explained — fortunately, because otherwise no one would have guessed — was also a self-portrait as a condemned sinner suffering the pains of Dante’s Inferno.
Gauguin, it is not hard to guess, was indelibly marked by his Catholic education. He spent his teens in a school outside Orléans, under the personal instruction of the charismatic Bishop Dupanloup. Among the questions the bishop’s pupils were encouraged to put to themselves were more or less precisely those in the title of Gauguin’s most ambitious work: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ (1897). Obviously, Gauguin carried his inner lapsed Catholic within himself, even when he sailed to the South Seas.
I suspect that behind the ceramic ‘Head of a Savage, Mask’ (c.1895), there lurked a memory of the Romanesque Christ above the portal of the church of St Trophime in Arles — same moustache, same beard —which made an impression on Gauguin during his ill-fated house share with Van Gogh in 1888.
Repeatedly, Gauguin represented himself as Christ, but always ambivalently. In ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ (1889), he seems slumped in melancholy indecision. ‘Self-Portrait near Golgotha’, from 1896, finds him standing in front of a dark hillside from which there stares a gigantic Oceanic face.
Jesus was not his only alter ego. In the portrait he gave to Van Gogh, for example, Gauguin took on the role of Jean Valjean, central character in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. All this role-playing might well seem insincere. In letters, Gauguin also claimed that, deep down, he was a peasant, native American, ‘Peruvian savage’ and Buffalo Bill, the celebrated cowboy. On the other hand, in donning these unsuitable masks perhaps Gauguin was on to something. After all, many of us adopt and act out borrowed roles, which might seem incongruous, not to say ridiculous, when quoted in cold print.
It is harder to answer the charge that Gauguin, as a portraitist, was only really interested in himself. His depictions of other people are generally much weaker. That applies to the early portrait of his Danish wife Mette, the ‘Young Christian Girl’ of 1894, and his friend and supporter William Molard, who was painted upside-down on the back of another self-portrait of the artist himself.
The pictures of Polynesian women, such as ‘Woman with a Mango’ (1892), though sumptuous, look more generic than images of specific people. But then, Gauguin was not a naturalistic artist (which is probably why Lucian Freud, in a moment of sublime political incorrectness, complained he was ‘a bit of a girl painter’). Most of the time he was more concerned with what was going on in his head.
When he did paint what was in front of him — for example, ‘Madame Roulin’ (1888), done from life, side by side with Vincent — he tended to come down with a bump. It is hard to believe this stolid housewife is the same woman that Van Gogh transformed into the feverish fantasy of ‘La Berceuse’. In comparison with Van Gogh, who during his short career maintained an amazingly high masterpiece rate, Gauguin was erratic. Even in this carefully selected exhibition there are points where he is off-form, dull or weak.
Pissarro was right. Gauguin was always pinching ideas from here and there. Indeed, he lifted a lot from Van Gogh. The crashing colour chord of complimentary gold and violet in ‘Woman with a Mango’ is straight out of the Dutchman’s playbook. But then again, magpie borrowing — or ‘appropriation’ as the art world calls it — is how most people and most cultures piece themselves together.
A lot of people have always disliked Gauguin. More than one publisher has told me that he was such a nasty man that no one would want to read about him. Maybe, but that is unlikely to prevent the public crowding into this exhibition, and rightly so because, hero or villain — or, more troublingly, both — he was a great artist and, even in his pilfering, a truly original one.
Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery until 26 January 2020.