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Gauguin: Maker of Myth

Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait with Manao tupapau 1893-4

Oil on canvas 46 x 38 cm

Musée d'Orsay, Paris RF 1966-7

Photo credits : © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


Tate Modern


Level 4

30 September 2010 – 16 January 2011






A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This exhibition, the first major showing of its kind for many years, which, seeks to ‘unpack’ the self-imposed myths French Post Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) created around himself and his work will either further or debunk popular misconceptions. The choice will ultimately be the viewers.

In the 1800’s, when women were not only meant to ‘obey’ their husbands, but were, often, seen and treated as chattel, one could hardly cry sexism when a middle-aged family man followed his inclinations towards younger women. However, in the case of French artist Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), such tendencies, combined with powerful senses of wander-lust and artistic experimentation proved so evocative that they took him far from his home in Paris and gradually enabled his nearly biblically implied downfall on a remote island, where he was to die of syphilitic heart failure.

But before his legend extended to include denizen of excess, self promotional and mythologizing Gauguin was well on his way towards the implementation of a successful artistic career. Following on from an early childhood in Peru, having further ignited his thirst for adventure as a seventeen year old sailor on a six year tour of duty which took him to various ports of call, including South America and Scandinavia, Paris born Gauguin would travel relentlessly throughout the course of his life, creating art wherever he went.

Although today, Gauguin is still most commonly remembered for his painting of beautiful young Tahitian women, anticipating Art Nouveau, historically, he is regarded as a forerunner of modernism and more specifically, in some cases, even surrealism.  In his painting Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888, for example, a realistic scene of gossiping women takes on a religious connotations when they are juxtaposed with a pair of light and dark shadows which could only exist within the confines of one’s imagination and/or conscience. A lapsed Catholic, Gauguin was well aware of the implications here, as residue of his former faith reappears throughout the course of his artistic career.


Paul Gauguin

Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888

Oil on canvas 73 x 92 cm

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh



As claimed, Gauguin’s striking self-portraits are among the highlights of this exhibition, most notable among them and certainly, most controversial being his Self-portrait as Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889 (Norton Museum of Art, Florida) which some critics, especially in his time, viewed as reflective of the way in which Gauguin regarded himself in the art world – as something of a superior outcast. But in this example from that grouping, Self-portrait with Manao tupapau 1893-4, one sees that like conceptual artists today, such as Damien Hirst, who never shrinks from duplicating past successes, albeit with slight variations, Gauguin’s pre-branding, self-promotional tendencies are much in evidence here, as he has deliberately posed before one of his own paintings, as it were, advertising both in the process.

One definite stand out in a sea of otherwise scantily clad young Tahitian women painted in the flattened style Gauguin adopted for this mythological series of paintings is LesAїeux de Tehamana or Tehamana has many Parents 1893. It is notable, not just for the fact that the young woman portrayed was one of Gauguin’s partners, but because it is perhaps, the only such painting to convey a sense of the Westernisation of such women, who in reality, not only wore clothing, generally of a European nature as depicted, but, also much to his disappointment, had been already been Christianised by missionaries some hundred years before his first arrival on the island in 1891, when he’d remained for nearly two years. Despite any disillusionment on this part, Gauguin returned to Tahiti in 1895 remaining there for life. Like so many conceptual artists of today, Gauguin had a gimmick, in that although he knew otherwise, he continued to perpetrate a myth centring around nubile young women, supposedly, wandering through a tropical paradise, just rife for the picking by him, or any number of European opportunists who happened to cross their paths, no doubt feeding French fantasies. Patriarchal though this trick was, it was he hoped, still profitable, enabled thanks to the bureaucracy and postal service in his supposedly, remote local.

A fine example of Gauguin’s wood carving is on show with the doorway of his, what translates to House of Orgasms, which though a real doorway, may have trimmed a house which existed more in his imagination than anywhere else. This is just one of several, often primitive looking examples of Gauguin’s sculptures and carvings. Also represented here are ceramics, of which there were originally fifty-five all told,and woodcuts, as well as the all important drawings. Paintings include the above, and many, many more, all of which are arranged by theme, rather than chronologically, and letters and writings by the artist which are displayed in dedicated rooms of their own.  Representations of work made during Gauguin’s fruitful periods in Brittany are also on show here, and the fine I-pod guided talk which accompanies the exhibition makes reference to Gauguin’s artistic associations with Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, among many other significant influences, some of them symbolists.   

If visual promotion is anything to go on, I might have hoped to emerge from this exhibition feeling as though I’d just been on a sojourn to the tropics.  In reality, however, thanks to what I’d learned about Gauguin on my visit, my exit was more like escaping an artistically placed house of cards.





Paul Gauguin

Merahi metua no Tehamana (LesAїeux de Tehamana / The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has many Parents) 1893

Oil on canvas 76.3 x 54.3 cm

The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr and Mrs Charles Deering McCormick





Tate Modern

Level 4

Admission £13.50, (concession £10.00)

Open every day from 10.00 – 18.00 and late night until 22.00 on Friday and Saturday





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