In 1891, artist Paul Gauguin arrived in the French colony of Tahiti looking for an exotic paradise and convinced that he could make money painting local clients. One first attempt was the Portrait of Suzanne Bambridge, a mixed race woman who had married into the Tahitian royal family. The painting, which shows a plain middle-aged woman in a floral dress, had not left its home in a Belgian museum for decades, but it is now hanging at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in the new exhibition Gauguin: Portraits. The story goes that Bambridge was so embarrassed she hid her portrait, which is not hard to believe: The woman’s fleshy face and bulbous nose are half covered by a mottled grey shadow, while the artist has left her dress unfinished in the bottom corner. A pleasing likeness was the least of Gauguin’s concerns.
Indeed, this exhibition, assembled for NGC by the independent curator Cornelia Homburg and for the National Gallery in London by its curator Chris Riopelle, argues that Gauguin’s portraits always served his art rather than his sitter. His concern was technique and philosophy, not physiognomy and psychology. The exhibition is a first: No one has ever assembled Gauguin’s portraits before, perhaps because, as it proposes, they aren’t really portraits at all.
Gauguin’s experimentation, so celebrated today for opening the door to 20th-century Modernism, left him continually searching for new approaches to new subjects while reinventing himself as a persona beyond the confines of European civilization. The exhibition begins with the self-portraits in which he portrays himself as an exotic dandy, an outcast artist, a fallen angel and even as a suffering Christ figure, giving his own features to the pensive Christ in the Garden of Olives of 1889. Photographs reveal how much Gauguin exaggerated his hooked nose, evidence of his supposed Inca heritage. (His mother’s family was Peruvian, but Spanish not Indigenous.) Meanwhile, the ceramic and bronze masks entitled Head of a Savage show flattened features that don’t resemble the artist yet also represent an aspirational self-portrait. (The installation in Ottawa needs to offer visitors more explicit reassurance that the title is as much a reference to the artist himself as it is to the Tahitian iconography on which the piece may be based.)
As a person, Gauguin appears every bit as insufferable as Picasso and, to any contemporary observer, much of his behaviour, from his pretensions to indigenity to his affairs with Polynesian teenagers, is deeply troubling. His quest for a primitive self was filled with macho posturing, yet his aggressive inventiveness also busts open European painting; art historians are not going to give him up. At the recent media preview, Homburg reminded listeners that he must be considered as a historical figure, but spoke also of the way he “appropriated” his sitters for his own artistic ends.
The most intriguing example is Meijer de Haan, the Dutch artist who was Gauguin’s philosophical companion in the years before he left for Tahiti. Homburg’s inspiration for this exhibition is a painted wood carving of de Haan that belongs to NGC and in which Gauguin portrays the small, hunched-backed, red-headed man as a monumental figure. NGC conservationists have discovered the sculpture was painted with distemper, a chalk-based medium unusual for polychrome wood, and appears to have been hacked off a half-burnt log, revealing how the artist’s experimentation was technical as well as thematic.
The carving, with a chicken sitting on the subject’s head – haan means rooster in Dutch – is an affectionate piece that turns the small man into some kind of god-like tree sprite. Later, he becomes a crouching imp with claw-like toes, a malevolent symbol of Judeo-Christianity in Barbarian Tales, a symbolic representation of world religions. Previously, scholars sometimes theorized that Gauguin had fought with de Haan, leading the French artist to increasingly unflattering depictions of his colleague, but here, in the context of Gauguin’s pseudo-portraiture, it is clear the figure painted in Polynesia after de Haan’s death has little to do with the actual man. De Haan has been appropriated for once and for all.
Of course, Gauguin's appropriations stretched well beyond Europe as he looked to Polynesia for a culture that would offer him a shortcut through logic and civilization to emotion and sensuality – and exotic subject matter that would sell back in Paris. The nasty Judeo-Christian figure in Barbarian Tales is hesitant in its oversight of two more confident ones, an androgynous cross-legged youth representing Buddhism and a naked woman with flowing red tresses representing Polynesian pantheism. In her catalogue essay, Homburg suggests that the hovering de Haan is now a representation of Gauguin himself and that the echo of red hair from the European to the Polynesian may be an acknowledgement of colonial sexual predation.
The latter figures are two of the very few nudes in this exhibition, which counters rough impressions of Gauguin’s art with the reality that most of his naked Polynesian goddesses do not appear in portraits but in genre scenes or his larger symbolic works. Instead, the viewer must consider what happens when Gauguin’s free-spirited Polynesian girls pose for the artist clothed in the baggy, high-collared dresses forced on them by missionaries. Can Melancholic, a seated figure in a long pink dress that reprises a pose well-established in European painting, be considered a portrait of any of Gauguin’s many mistresses? Is Tehamana has Many Parents, an image of a young woman in a blue-and-white striped dress backed by mystical figures and mysterious glyphs, really a representation of Gauguin’s child bride – or was Tehamana herself more a fictionalized creation of Noa Noa, his dubious autobiographical account of his Polynesian life? If Gauguin could assume another European man into his art as thoroughly as he did de Haan, a Tahitian 14-year-old stands little chance of retaining any identity.
This exhibition includes Gauguin’s last self-portrait from 1903, a small work in which a solid face with a cropped head and round glasses stares neutrally at the viewer. Facing death, Gauguin seems to have finally stripped away his grand postures and his fancy disguises. It is perhaps the most revealing portrait here – but also the most boring. To this day, Gauguin’s exoticism holds sway. In the next room, Tehamana’s eyes slide sideways, her wary gaze reminding visitors that legacy should be challenged by continual reinterpretation.
Gauguin Portraits continues in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada to Sept. 8.
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