Paul Gauguin

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The first major retrospective in over 50 years hits London this week and it seems the world can’t get tickets fast enough. When I did my art history back in the day, my memory is that we mostly skipped Gauguin. As I remember, our tutor dismissed him as an untrained amature and suggested that his work (prior to heading off to Tahiti) was mostly derivative and unoriginal, that he was a troubled soul and not able to stay in one place for any length of time. A man who liked under age girls (something he shared with Schiele), and winding up the far more talented Van Gough to such an extent, that he cut his ear off…..

This view has always formed (clouded?) my opinion of him and consequently I’ve never given him much thought, so I am surprised and intrigued to see that the art critics are now suggesting that he is one of the founding fathers of modernism, citing his use of colour and reductive form as key apsects of their proof.

And so, having looked into it a bit more over the last few days, it seems that I may have done him a disservice, dismissing him out of hand. Whilst I still find the portraits of the Tahiti girls that he did at the end of his life (and for which he is most famous) trite, and naive, there are other aspects which I had never previously considered.

Gauguin died in 1903 and posthumous retrospective exhibitions held in Paris in both 1903 and a larger one in 1906 were a huge influence on Picasso. It seems obvious now, but I had never connected the large, simplified figures of Gauguin with what I was always taught as the first modernist painting, that being Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1906/07. I had always accepted that Picasso took his primary cues from the startling genius of fellow Spaniard El Greco, the abstract landscapes of Cezanne, and the influx of Primitive sculpture that found its way to Paris around the turn of the 20th century, transforming them via the abandonment of perspective into a new direction.

The other thing that amused me regarding the coverage was the total acceptance by the media (especially BBC’s 10 O’clock News) of the nudity of the underage girls that Gauguin liked to paint. It’s not often that you see Fiona Bruce sitting in front of pictures of semi naked children.

It reminds me of John Bergers’s excellent book from the 1970’s “Ways of Seeing” in which, through a series of written and pictorial essays, he discusses issues pertaining to differences (both real and perceived) between photos of naked women from “glossy magazines” and paintings of naked women in galleries.

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