When Gauguin Portraits ends its run at the National Gallery this month, the artist will have emerged as a serious portraitist as well as a Primitivist, Symbolist and Synthetist. What might have been overlooked along the way is Gauguin the man of God.
Gauguin’s fascination with the traditional beliefs of French Polynesia is well known. It is all part of the rebellious stockbroker package, taking his unappreciated creativity off to warmer climes. But his patriarchal failings are also plain to see. There’s no whitewashing the artist. He is an inconsiderate, self-absorbed paedophile (in modern terms), with unaccountable quantities of genius thrown in. (He also had an un-Gallic love of Bovril, I remember reading long ago, although that is not part of the exhibition.)
Here he’s all about rejecting convention and going off-grid. But he still seems to have been very concerned about the approbation of others. Unlike his more genuinely aggrieved friend, Van Gogh, he found it. Gauguin’s buyers included luminaries of the time such as Frederick Delius. The English composer bought Nevermore, which excited Gauguin greatly. It ended up in London’s Courtauld collection but not in this exhibition. Nevermore is a portrait of his young “wife” – voted “Britain’s Most Romantic Painting” 10 years ago.
At the National Gallery we see more of Gauguin’s self-portraits. An artist who objected to missionaries imposing French culture on their Polynesian subjects, as he did, might have painted locals instead of himself more often. Instead we see a tortured Gauguin in the Garden of Gethsemane. Unfortunately he wasn’t on very good terms with many locals. No doubt all the reviewers are right that he identified himself with Christ anyway, but perhaps he used himself as a model because he couldn’t find or afford anyone else apart from long-suffering young women.
He clearly loved the totemic imagery that he found on the far side of the planet. It features in his paintings and to my eyes occupies the place that Catholic imagery might have done in earlier European paintings. He grew up with Catholic iconography and didn’t forget it. The image that greets visitors before they enter the exhibition is an enormous poster of Gauguin with his Yellow Christ in the background. (Unlike the original painting, this version has been decapitated by the National Gallery’s marketing department.)
We are told that Gauguin was a deeply spiritual man. The missionaries he met were not interested in cultural syncretism, although it wouldn’t have been difficult to find devotional items of this type elsewhere in the Pacific or Africa. Instead, what we see is an ever more self-absorbed artist getting into frequent disagreements with the Catholic Church. These were often personal. Spoiling his Polynesian turf was a bishop, Joseph Martin, whom Gauguin accused of having illicit relations with employees.
At the very end, it seems that Gauguin could not escape his Catholic roots. The bishop is the painter’s closest neighbour in their hilltop cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery, London, until January 26