After having seen the new exhibition “GAUGUIN – Maker of Myth” at the Tate Modern a few days ago, I was amazed to find that Gauguin, who is construed in contemporary literature as a creative genius, began his career in a totally opposite field. Following the crash of the French stock market in 1882, he left his career as a stock-broker to become a full time artist.
Paul Gauguin was a Post-Impressionist artist during the late 19th century. This term functions as an umbrella for various art movements that followed Impressionism (1869 – late 1880s). Post-Impressionist movements include Fauvism (led by Matisse), Realism (headed by Courbet), Symbolism and Synthetism to which Gauguin was attributed. Just as a side note, Van Gogh and Cezanne are also Post-Impressionists, however, as they influenced Expressionism and Cubism they remain unclassified.
A canonical Impressionist work is Monet’s Bridge over a Pool of Water Lilies 1889: the surface is a mosaic of tiny dots and dashes of paint. True to Impressionist style, it was created outdoors or en plein air as a recording of the artist’s impression of the scene before him. Black was omitted from the Impressionist palette and instead dark tones were used. The Impressionists wished to express their emotions when painting, as opposed to creating laboriously accurate paintings – otherwise known as Academic Paintings.
…Colours were saturated, perspectival depth ignored and subjects in the painting appeared exotic, almost “otherworldly”…
Although he began his career as an Impressionist, Gauguin later found he disagreed with the Impressionist philosophy of only painting observed scenes (objective representation). His travels to Brittany, Martinique and Tahiti exposed him to a world of superstitions, spirits and apparitions that fascinated him and led him to create slightly surreal representations of primitive life. Colours were saturated, perspectival depth ignored and subjects in the painting appeared exotic, almost “otherworldly”, when first exhibited to the French eye. A prime example of this is “Nevermore O Tahiti” 1897, which is, conveniently, the figurehead of the Tate exhibition.
Gauguin continued to create works, later dubbed “Symbolist”, where psychological interactions between spirits and humans were represented in one domain – the artist’s subjectivity, that is to say the artist’s beliefs and opinions, was emphasised. Gauguin’s “Vision of the Sermon” painted in Brittany 1888, also in the exhibition, is a clear example; the women of Brittany are represented using simplified shapes, vivid colours and coarsely applied paint, in the midst of a revelation. No photograph does justice to the experience of seeing the actual painting first-hand. Neither the colours nor the excited faces of the women who observe Jacob wrestling an angel on the opposing portion of the canvas have the same visual impact.
They used their works as a medium to escape from reality…
It should be noted that Symbolists were not united by a common technique; rather they shared a common interest in shunning the decadence of the rising Bourgeois society, avidly represented by the Impressionists. They used their works as a medium to escape from reality. Gauguin preferred to work inside his studio and used his mind to formulate his compositions; although he would always paint figures from direct observations.
What sets Gauguin’s Symbolism apart from other Symbolists of the time, is the fact that he escaped from “modern” civilisation to remote areas where he could immerse himself in alien cultures and practices. He produced a variety of works including sculptures, some pretty fascinating woodcuts, and drawings using local materials and influences to represent the area from a more native perspective.
The exhibition has been carefully curated to include two rooms titled Life and Times which establish the wider contexts in which Gauguin’s art was created such as colonialism and the subsequent development of ethnographic exhibits. These include personal letters, travel advertisements and travel books.
The variation of content ensures a wider target audience (not just the art connoisseur) is able to enjoy the exhibit, and the curators achieve the perfect balance between the mythic realm of Gauguin’s art and the reality in which it operated.
I seriously recommend the exhibition to those of you who wish to physically witness what I have briefly discussed in my article – the magic of Gauguin.