If anyone ever tries to decide who was the most misunderstood artistic genius of all time, I know where my vote will go. Not to Van Gogh, who may have had a troubled life but whose posthumous reception has been one long bask in the sun. Or even Michelangelo, who exaggerated the bashings he received from the popes every bit as skilfully as he enlarged the muscles on his naked hunks. Manet? When he first exhibited his nude Olympia she was, indeed, dismissed by the critics as “a female gorilla”, but by the time he died the French were thrusting Légions d’Honneur at him. More misunderstood than any of them has unquestionably been Gauguin.
There is something about Gauguin that annoys people on an unusually profound artistic level. He’s an itch that cannot be scratched. A permanent pariah. Why, there are even those out there — rather a lot of them as it happens — who do not accept that he was a genius. Gauguin, they snarl, was just a grubby French lecher who ran off to Tahiti to shag underage native girls. Even the woman who organised the big new Gauguin show heading for Tate Modern cannot keep the dark preconceptions out of her tone — and she’s supposed to be an admirer! Describing our hero, she notes “the low brow, the lazy, hooded eyes, the hooked nose and cruel, unsmiling mouth”. That’s not Gauguin. That’s Alan Rickman as the baddie in Die Hard.
A few years ago I had the honour of making the only full-length TV biography so far of Gauguin. I followed in his footsteps and tried to decide on his final worth. But when the film was shown on the Beeb the response from some quarters of the viewing public was only just short of hysterical. How can you admire this obnoxious sex tourist, screamed the angries on my right. He deserted his wife and kids. He ran around Tahiti spreading syphilis to the natives. Gauguin was a buffoon, screamed the angries on my left, a pretentious, arrogant, puffed-up French phoney.
My film had, of course, told a completely different story — it had told the truth — but the Gauguin prejudices I saw ran deep.
They may even be indelible. Only last year, a couple of demented German researchers published the ludicrous accusation that it was actually Gauguin and not Vincent himself who cut off the great Dutch ear in that disastrous build-up to Christmas the two of them shared in Arles in 1888. Gauguin, they revealed, was a master swordsman who had taken his fencing kit with him to the south of France. When a drunken Vincent attacked him in the street, Gauguin did a d’Artagnan and skilfully severed his lunging pal’s lug with a sweet sweep of his épée. There are tripe-swallowers out there who believed this offal.
The myths about Gauguin that have grown up, particularly in Britain, have taken root so firmly that nobody seems prepared to believe you when you counter them with the facts. In real life, Gauguin did not desert his wife and kids.
What actually happened was that her family threw him out because he could no longer keep them in the manner to which they had grown accustomed. His Danish wife, Mette, was actually the one who did the deserting when she jumped aboard a passing boat in Normandy and returned to her family in Copenhagen without telling him. A distraught Gauguin followed her to Denmark in 1884 and took a ridiculous job as a tarpaulin salesman. He was good at most things in life, but not at selling unwanted French tarpaulins to the Danes. Mette’s posh family was embarrassed by him.
Since he could not keep her in the pearls and housekeepers she favoured, they asked him to leave. “I hate the Danes,” he wrote bitterly to Pissarro. But for the next two decades he nursed the hopeless dream that one day he would make enough from his art to bring them all back together again. The letters he sent Mette are some of most touching in art. And also some of the best written.
Gauguin’s flight to Tahiti in 1891 was not as it is painted either. He was not a sex tourist. We should see him, rather, as a desperate cultural refugee. Gauguin hated the French just about as fiercely as everyone else does, and needed to get away from them. Tahiti was cheap, warm and, as we shall see, a kind of coming home. Nor did he proceed to run around the islands giving syphilis to the native girls. As Dr Patrick French, a white-coated venereal authority, explained when I consulted him, by the time Gauguin reached Tahiti he had had the disease for decades and was no longer contagious. He did not even know he had it. He believed he had heart problems and that the intense pains in his legs that made it so difficult to walk were tropical arthritis.
Besides, Van Gogh had syphilis too. And his supposedly saintly brother, Theo, who died from it. And Manet. And Baudelaire. And Toulouse-Lautrec. Why is it never held against that bunch that they infected the whores of France, but always held against Gauguin that he poxed the women of the South Seas? In Tahiti, by the way, syphilis is known as “the British disease”. We are the ones who took it there.
What is regrettably true is that Gauguin’s Tahitian wives were underage. Teha’amana, the lovely vahiné he painted looking so naked and frightened on her bed while the ghosts of the dead come down to haunt her in his unforgettable masterpiece, Manao Tupapau, was just 13 when her mother brought her to Gauguin.
In Tahiti girls were married off as soon as they reached puberty in an attempt to improve the odds. There is nothing commendable about it, but it certainly wasn’t unusual or weird. I have met Gauguin’s descendants in Tahiti, first a grandson, then a great-grandson, and their eyes lit up with pleasure at the mention of him. “Koke”, as they called him, was a great and beloved ancestor. He had stood with the natives against the colonists. They were proud to be his sons.
As for his being a swordsman in the d’Artagnan class, that was probably true as well. Gauguin was one of those rare beings who are uncommonly good at most things they try (apart from selling tarpaulins to the Danes). The magic in his hands that made him so bewilderingly expert at painting, printing, sculpture and pottery also made him unusually good at boxing, snooker, playing the organ and the mandolin, and, apparently, love-making. According to a fuzzy local rumour in Panama City, where he was based in 1887 while working on the digging of the Panama canal (another crazy scheme to raise money to get back with his wife), so skilled was he at billiards that he won the unofficial world championships mounted at the Hotel Central. Even his ability to hold his liquor was the stuff of legend.
No artist, before or since, has prepared for greatness as creatively as Gauguin. Anyone setting out to follow in his footsteps will soon be feeling dizzy from the manoeuvring. His entire life was an expressionist masterpiece.
He only decided to become a painter in his late twenties. When Mette first encountered him he was making enough money as a Paris stockbroker to be buying Cézannes and Monets. This was not a buffoon or a phoney. This was a wonderfully dexterous, adaptable man who became one of the greatest creative forces that art has unleashed: a master to rank alongside Michelangelo, Leonardo, Picasso, at the very top of the art tree. Sadly, when you say this to people they tend to pooh-pooh you.
It is about time a big Gauguin show arrived in London. After all, if Picasso sneezed he had a show about it. Henry Moore needed only to change the position of his comb-over for it to warrant a major national commemoration. Gauguin’s death in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 took place in appalling circumstances. Unappreciated, unnoticed, his body decomposing from disease and heat, he was shovelled hurriedly into an unmarked grave by the local priests. How they hated Gauguin for preferring Tahitian civilisation to theirs! So undervalued was he that an auction of his effects mounted after his death saw his sewing machine sold for 80 francs — and his pictures for two francs. Some great atonement was called for here. Gauguin, however, does not press the British buzzer. We don’t like him. He’s too arrogant. Too shifty. Too horny. Too French.
In fact he wasn’t French. Not in any clearly packaged or handy way. His mother was part-Peruvian, and although his father was from Orleans, he was a radical journalist who criticised Louis Napoleon’s France so fiercely that in 1849 he was forced to flee to South America, where he hoped to settle with his wife’s extensive family. Tragically, the father died of a heart attack on the long sea voyage over. He was buried somewhere in Tierra del Fuego. I once made a half-hearted attempt to find his unmarked grave, but it was like looking for a grain of sand on a Tahitian beach.
Another reason people don’t like Gauguin, apart from his desertions, his paedophilia and his arrogance, is because the legend has taken root that he was a compulsive liar who fictionalised his life and passed off an exotic myth as reality. The Tate Modern show is called Gauguin: Maker of Myth, and its driving idea is that Gauguin was obsessed with myths, especially the one he created about himself. As the catalogue puts it, his identity as a man and an artist was “carefully crafted”. I used to believe something of that sort, until I visited the places he grew up in and retraced his journey across Tahiti, all the way to the Marquesas Islands, the most faraway spot on Earth, where the beaches at twilight really are as purple, red and yellow as he painted them. The revelation for me was not how much Gauguin distorted the truth, but how honest he was about it.
He was one when he left France and lived in Peru until he was seven. Lima was where Gauguin became Gauguin. The house in which he spent his most formative years is easy to find. It is right in the middle of town, on one of the main thoroughfares, the most neglected building in the street. The roof is falling in. The walls are flaking. The huge blue door is ostentatiously locked.
However, in the 1850s, when Gauguin lived here, the place would have been very grand and busy. Because this was the house of the president of Peru. Yes, the president of Peru.
In a dusty archive in Arequipa, the high Andes town in which Gauguin’s ancestors were based, and which they effectively ran at the time, bits and pieces of the family history are still mixed in with Amazonian parrot feathers and capes made from macaw wings.
Piecing together their story from old newspaper cuttings and curled-up government posters, I saw clearly that his Peruvian relatives were shockingly powerful.
Power was a family inheritance. Because these relatives were actually descended from the Borgias. Gauguin’s maternal great-uncle, Don Pio de Tristan y Moscoso, was the last Spanish viceroy of Peru.
And the house that is now at 253 Avenida de la Emancipacion belonged to his son-in-law, Jose Rufino Echenique, president of Peru from 1851-55, at exactly the time that Gauguin and his newly widowed mother were living there.
By all accounts, Echenique was a woeful president. But a woeful president is still a president. And Gauguin’s childhood in his grand house in Lima must have been unforgettable. His grieving mother was dark and beautiful. She wore a mantilla that covered most of her face, and she would sit on the balcony like a Goya heroine looking down at the passing crowd through one eye. Thus the first women in Gauguin’s life were exotic, swarthy, costumed. The first sights he knew were colourful and crazy. The first temperatures he felt were hot. So while those who never properly consider his roots in Peru see his journey to Tahiti as a flight from civilisation, I believe it was a return to something he knew. Something he had lost.
ather pleasingly, when I visited the rambling Gauguin house in Lima, it belonged to an artist, a painter of nudes and historic portraits in his nineties who supplemented his living with a roaring trade in forged coins. The house was so ruined that only its skeleton remained. I stumbled from broken room to broken room looking for something to take as a souvenir, but there was nothing left to nick. Everything movable had already been stolen by the local poor people.
My own father died when I was eight months old, so on the subject of growing up somewhere foreign without a dad and being brought up by a freshly widowed grieving mother I have some previous. Add the dramatic strangeness of finding yourself in the president’s house in Peru and you have the ingredients for a truly remarkable childhood.
Later on, as he hustled about Brittany without his wife, trying to become a painter, Gauguin would declare: “I am a savage from Peru.” The organisers of the Tate show see this as a typical bit of self-dramatisation. But it was weirdly true. How exotic and alarming his young life must have been! How colourful. How completely different.
When Gauguin returned to France at the age of seven, he spoke no French. His dead father’s family in Orleans took him in, but they were a dour bunch from a dour bit of France who stuck him in a religious boarding school where they tried to turn him into a Catholic priest. It is still there: stern, red-brick, misty, damp. Visiting it gave me the heeby-jeebies. God knows what it did to the savage from Peru.
As soon as he could, he joined the merchant navy and sailed to Rio, where he lost his virginity and probably contracted syphilis. He crisscrossed the oceans so furiously a typhoon would have formed in his wake had he not eventually docked. A male friend of his mother’s, “a special friend”, organised for him to work as a stockbroker in Paris, which is where he discovered his true passion: art.
In his few later writings on the subject of his youth, Gauguin invariably adopts a sardonic, jokey tone. To understand why, you need only read chapter one, page one, paragraph one, of the book of denial. Modern commentators make all manner of huge mistakes in their reading of Gauguin. But the most serious is to take him at his word when he feigns insouciance, and to miss the darkness inside. Miss that and you miss everything.