Thursday, September 30, 2010

Record-breaking Gauguin Restrospective opens at Tate Modern

The first retrospective exhibition of Paul Gauguin's work opens at Tate Modern today.  Gauguin - Maker of Myth is the first major exhibition of his work in the UK in over half a century.  The last major retrospective was at the Tate Gallery (at Millbank) in 1955 and the last exhibition of any of his work (other than in collections) in the UK was in 1966 when the focus was on his work on Pont Aven.  So in effect this is, for many people, a once in a lifetime exhibition.

I find Paul Gauguin to be a very seductive artist.  Back in the early 90s, when I first encountered him in the Musee dOrsay, I didn't like his work much but as I have seen more and more of it in every gallery I visit I began to appreciate it more and more and I think I've now almost reached the status of being a fan!

Scope of the Exhibition

The work is well laid out across 11 rooms in total as follows.  Click the links to see the online exhibition guide.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth will trace the artist’s unique approach to storytelling. Bringing together over 100 works from public and private collections from around the world, the exhibition will take a fresh and compelling look at this master of modern art.  
1.  Identity and Self Mythology - the exhibition starts with a series of self-portraits.

Self Portrait with Manao tupapau 1893-4
oil on canvas
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
A highlight of the exhibition will be a sequence of powerful self-portraits including Self-portrait as Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889 (Norton Museum of Art, Florida) and Self-portrait with Manau tu papau 1893 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). These works demonstrate Gauguin’s aptitude at role-playing as he adopts different guises of victim, saint, Christ-like martyr and sinner.  
2.  Making the Familiar Strange - his still lifes don't look quite like other people's still life

Still Life with Fruit 1888
oil on canvas
The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
3.  Life and Times 1848-1891 - this is one of two rooms which bring together a selection of books, letters, photographs and othe documentary materials about his life, his reading and his writing, the places where he worked and the relationships he had with other people - poets, critics and artists.

4. Gauguin's Drawings - it was great to see that this man is somebody who practised observational drawings and kept a sketchbook

5. Landscape and Rural Narrative - a very peculiar thing happens when you try to take a photograph of his landscapes and that's that they change colour very slightly.  I've never experienced this to the extent that it happens with Gauguin's work - and I'd love to know who made his paints!  I really like some of his landscapes - and you can expect a further post about these on my Art of the Landscape blog

Tahitian Landscape (1891)

oil on canvas
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

6.  Sacred Themes - this includes the paintings of the yellow Christ and the green Christ

7. The Eternal Feminine - this shows how he progresses through his depiction of female subjects

8.  Life and Times 1889-1903 - this period of his life was dominated by his two trips to Tahiti and then subsequently the Marquesa Islands where he died in 1903

9.  Gauguin's Titles - fascinating and a subject for a future post

10.  Teller of Tales  - Gauguin has a longstanding fascination about mixing text and words and this room shows some of the ways he did this 

11.  Earthly Paradise - contrasts the way he portrayed the place with what it was like in reality for him 

Visiting this exhibition - practical matters

This is a very large exhibition.  There's an awful lot to take in and if you want to appreciate it properly you need to allow a good time.  This exhibition is also going to be very popular - it's broken box office records for pre-opening bookings.

There is plenty of space for lots of people but it was very hot on Tuesday when I visited and I'd certainly suggest you visit when it's less busy if that's an option.

The audio guide works like an iPod Touch which means it includes film as well as slideshows and audio about the works.  First you see the painting - then you watch a film of the place where he painted it.  They are however variable.  The first one I got didn't work properly at all - so check yours works properly before going inside.

Understanding the man

It's interesting reading the various reviews of the show.  Some make assumptions about who influenced his work and in what ways.

However I have to say it was watching Waldemar Januszczak's documentary programme about Gauguin on Monday night that pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place for me.  I can't recap the whole programme here and unfortunately it's not available on iPlayer or DVD.  However for me I suddenly realised that everything I had ever read about Gauguin had missed out the bit about his Peruvian heritage and the fact that he lived in Peru when he was a small child.  That and the extent to which he travelled before he even picked up a paint brush suggested to me that the theme behind this exhibition - of identity and myth-making - has to be very slowly unpacked to get at all the nuances which exist in terms of who he was as a man - and how he presented himself to the world.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris and spent his early childhood in Peru. Joining the merchant navy at seventeen he travelled for six years, visiting South America, Scandinavia and other parts of the globe. In 1871 he joined a Paris stock broking firm and in 1873 married Mette Gad, painting in his spare time. In 1883, with five children to support, he resigned from his job, determined to pursue an artistic career. From 1886, separated from his family, Gauguin became increasingly disenchanted with Paris and worked mainly in Brittany, with influential spells in Martinique and Arles. After leaving Europe for Tahiti in 1891, apart from two further years in France, the remainder of his life was spent in the South Seas. 
Tate Modern
When you look at Tahiti on the map, you begin to realise he's in the one bit of the French empire which is close to Peru.

He's a lot more complex and his art is far more wide-ranging than I'd ever realised before.  That's another one of the reasons why it pays to go round slowly.  I came out knowing that I was going to have to revisit maybe once or twice more before I've got the full value out of what is in this very dense and yet apparently simplistic exhibition.  There are layers upon layers.

It doesn't matter if you only go to look at the paintings - because some of these are very powerful.  You will however be surprised to see the extent to which he carves and makes sculptures and the sheer diversity of his artwork - he worked in virtually every medium.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth reflects the artist’s remarkable breadth of approach by including examples from every period of his practice. Works in a wide range of media including painting, monotype, woodcut, watercolour, ceramics, carvings and decorated objects will be shown alongside rarely-seen illustrated letters, sketchbooks, memoirs and journalism, revealing intimate insights into the artist’s working practices and thought processes.  

However if you come armed with some knowledge about his background and then also review some of the documentary evidence also on show, besides seeing the art you will also come out with a much richer appreciation of Gauguin the man as well as Gauguin the artist and, of course, of the art.

He's like a puzzle.  As one of the curators said "You think you've just begun to understand him - and then he throws you a curve ball"

I'm going to write more than one post about this exhibition as, like the Van Gogh, at the beginning of the year, I think it deserves it.

Information - Gauguin: Maker of Myth
  • 30 September 2010 – 16 January 2011 (Press View: 28 September 2010)
  • Tate Modern, Level 4

  • Admission £13.50, (concession £10.00)                                                                                     
  • Open every day from 10.00 – 18.00 and late night until 22.00 on Friday and Saturday
  • For public information number please print 020 7887 8888
The exhibition continues until 16th January.  It then moves across the Atlantic and opens at the National gallery in Washington DC in February 2011

1 comment:

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for this post. I look forward to more from you on PG.

His Tahitian landscape seems more mature to me. I never thought of it like that before.

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