Gauguin: maker of myth

See exactly Gauguin experimented with light, colour, shape and subject throughout his lifetime in the first major exhibition of his work in London for 50 years.

 

Vision of the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel 1888
Vision of the Sermon / Jacob Wrestling with the Angel 1888

“I feel that I can try anything here,” wrote Paul Gauguin to his long-suffering wife Mette in 1886. The Post-Impressionist painter, pioneer of Modernism and restless traveller had just discovered Pont Aven in the wild Finistère district of Brittany. The hub of an international artists’ colony where, like fellow painters “I’m living on credit at the Pension Gloanec” – a tiny Bohemian inn – its strange, rocky surroundings, superstitious people and clear light were inspirational to his early work. The obliging Madam Gloanec also took some impoverished lodgers’ paintings in lieu of rent.

Self-portrait with Manao tu papau 1893
Self-portrait with Manao tu papau 1893

Visitors can see exactly how the painter experimented with light, colour, shape and subject throughout his lifetime in Gauguin: Maker of Myth – the first major exhibition of his work in London for 50 years, showing at Tate Modern from 30 September to 16 January. The Brittany period includes iconic works like the emaciated Yellow Christ against a background of autumnal trees and Vision of the Sermon, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel on blood red earth. In the foreground of both works are praying Breton women in their distinctive “coiffe” caps, black dresses and coloured aprons, then part of everyday wear.

The exhibition also covers the artist’s time in Tahiti – where he died in 1903 – with Self-Portrait with Manao tu papau and the nude of Manao herself. Gauguin exiled himself in Tahiti, abandoning his family to escape European civilisation. “The South Seas flora, fauna and daily island life were inspiring,” says co-curator Belinda Thomson. “He also immersed himself in its fast-disappearing Maori culture to invest his art with deeper meaning, ritual and myth.”

Two Tahitian Women 1899
Two Tahitian Women 1899

Among the many unusual works are one in which he paints himself as a Christ-like figure in another as a demon. This imagery would be a continuation of something he had started during his time in Brittany, Martinique and Arles. The exhibition reflects,too, the artist’s breadth of work, including not just paintings, but monotype, woodcuts, watercolours, ceramics, carvings and decorated objects some rarely seen before. Many will come as a surprise to visitors, who may associate Gauguin only with his South Seas works or those he did in the Provence during his turbulent stay with his friend Vincent Van Gogh.

There are also illustrated letters, sketchbooks, memoirs and journalism revealing intimate insight into his life and work practices. Definitely, the top-of-the-list exhibition for art-lovers this autumn.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern, London SE1, 30 Sep 2010-16 Jan 2011; tickets: or (020)7887 8888;  Report by Pat Moore.

Images: Self-portrait with Manao tu papau 1893
. Paris Musée d’Orsay 
© RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.
Two Tahitian Women 1899
 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Vision of the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel 1888
.National Gallery of Scotland.

 

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