I cannot decide whether it is a good thing or a bad one that my favourite picture in London is currently plastered across the nation in the showy publicity for Tate Modern’s Gauguin show. Nevermore hangs usually at the undervisited Courtauld Galleries, where you will often find yourself alone with it. In those fine circumstances, loving the way Gauguin has set off the sweaty brown skin of his nude Tahitian with the gorgeous splash of her lemon yellow pillow, and feeling the pull of her mystery sucking you into the picture like a new Dyson, it is easy to be transported into the trancey, dreamy, impossible world of Gauguin. Big posters on the Underground don’t have the same effect: the nudity feels more Playboyish, the mystery more Mills and Boon. Yet, if the enlarged Nevermore draws audiences to Tate Modern’s superior attempt at summarising Gauguin’s achievements, any sacrifice in meaning must be worth it. The important point here — the truly scandalous point — is that Gauguin, too, is undervalued. We know his name, yes. He’s notorious, yes. Anthony Quinn played him in a movie, yes. But where it counts, in the hearts and souls of the people, he remains a largely unloved presence.
This lack of absolute enthusiasm for him is caused, most certainly, by the lies and nonsenses that are routinely believed of him. You will have heard these fibs: that he ran off to Tahiti to shag the native girls; that he abandoned his wife and five children; that he was a predatory sex tourist and paedophile; and so on. Projecting modern anxieties onto someone from the past like this is always a mistake, but in Gauguin’s case it has led to catastrophic misunderstandings. Instead of a courageous search for profundity and greater meaning, we see only Gary Glitter.
The Tate’s extravaganza tackles Gauguin from a specific viewpoint. In essence, the show is a compelling precis of the larger part of his career, ranging across three decades of change in style and location, from 1876 to 1903. But the show’s stated aim, loudspeakered in its title, is to explore Gauguin: Maker of Myth. Unarguably, he was one of those.
Having grown up in Peru, surrounded by strange elisions of intense Catholicism and the animist invention of the Incas, Gauguin was an early convert to mixing up legends and myths.
Look into the background of the tiny but creepy Last Supper he painted in Tahiti in 1899, and you will see Jesus presiding over his final feast while Buddha, two Maori canoe gods, a Tahitian mahoo and a white-robed Polynesian Greek loom above him in the foreground. It’s not a good painting, but what a madcap assortment of divinities. By this time, the syphilis Gauguin had picked up in his younger days as a merchant seaman — and which was no longer contagious, unlike the fresh syphilis Van Gogh had spread among the prostitutes of Arles — had addled his brain.
His final years saw him potholing ever deeper into hallucination and madness. A very strange painting from 1901, The Flight, showing a hook-nosed female rider urging her white horse across a river, was based on Dürer’s great woodcut of The Knight, Death and the Devil, but where Dürer has three distinct characters, Gauguin combines all of them in the weird mythic amalgam of the Punch-faced pale rider.
At the other end of the show, the crazy imaginings are less out there. A parade of self-portraits spanning his entire creative life makes immediately clear how elastically Gauguin imagined himself over the years. All are him, yet each is different. At the beginning of his adventure, he’s a sad-eyed student in a pretend fez, eager to project gravitas; 30 years later, at his grim end in Tahiti, he’s a puffy-faced old codger staring bleakly at his destiny through weak and tiny glasses. The sense of a man inventing his own identity here is palpable and brilliantly encapsulated.
It pays to inspect the other faces in the show ahead — males, monsters, gods and animals — because a fair number of them are Gauguin. He’s the red-headed Jesus betrayed by Judas in a spookily twilit Christ in the Garden of Olives, painted for Van Gogh’s attention in 1889. The inventive pot with the carrying handle at one end and a hook-nosed portrait at the other: that’s also Gauguin. He’s the monk dreaming of love with the beautiful Breton girl on the other side of the congregation in his revolutionary Vision After the Sermon from 1888. And he’s the wicked fox, draped across the immobile neck of a naked lover, in the deeply spooky (and deeply confessional?) re-employment of traditional folk symbolism he called The Loss of Virginity. In his own art, Gauguin was everywhere.
Yes, this is myth-making. But isn’t it also something more interesting, more psychological, less scholarly than that? Isn’t this a highly personal use of art to exorcise intimate guilts and doubts? The suspicion crept up on me, as I wandered among these madly inventive leaps in time and technique, that the main subject here is art itself: its power to influence reality and change it; its soothing and forgiving presence; its transformative potency and occult charge. Gauguin’s relationship to his pictures is akin to a witch doctor’s relationship to his wand.
That said, the show’s central thesis – that he was motivated by the urge to create myths and not, as with most of his great impressionist contempories, by the need to paint things as they were – is thoughtfully examined and cleverly plotted. Instead of rushing us to Tahiti, the display lingers thoughtfully on Gauguin’s earlier phases. He was, after all, 43 when he left on his first voyage to the South Seas; two thirds of his career had already happened. So, when we obsess about Gauguin’s Tahitian phase, we are obsessing about the tip of an iceberg and forgetting the part below.
Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing even more of this early work: his impressionist landscapes, for instance. Gauguin showed in five of the eight impressionist exhibitions, but this journey ignores his impressionism entirely.
Many will, however, be surprised by the glum, Ibsenesque interiors he produced in his “Scandinavian” phase, around 1881. Married to a hefty and bourgeois Danish wife, he evokes the glum atmosphere of their marriage in a suite of twilit rooms filled with Scandinavian pessimism. Downright suicidal in places, this is 19th-century marital evidence gathered by a Bergman of the brush. Another surprising Gauguin is Gauguin the ceramicist. In the entire history of pots, has there been anyone quite as wackily creative as this?
Twisted like the roots of a tree, painted with shadowy human presences that seem intent on haunting the pot, rather than decorating it, this is ceramic creativity from the wildest margins. His woodcarving, too, is madcap and stirring. On show are Gauguin’s home-made clogs, carved with girls and geese so he could carry his hopes around on his feet. There’s a walking stick with a beautiful arching nude for a handle, so that every time he set off, he could treat himself to a good feel.
A particularly exciting room, dealing with Sacred Themes, brings together the more obviously religious pictures he painted just before he left for Tahiti. Produced in Brittany, to which he fled from Paris in search of the nearest primitivism, they are, to my eyes, among the most interesting and original of all modern religious paintings. The Yellow Christ, featuring exactly what it says on the tin, is remarkable too for the unleashed yellowness of the landscape behind. The adjacent Green Christ is less gaudy, but just as heavily freighted with a huge tonnage of primitive Breton belief. What great and astonishing art.
By the time we get to Tahiti, the show has proved and re-proved Gauguin’s worth several times over, allowing us to see the Tahitian paintings as a development, not an escape; a continuation, not a break. Where to start? It’s all glorious, paradisiacal, enchanting stuff. My beloved Nevermore is here in the flesh, at the end of a fine Tahitian vista. The girl in the picture is nude and, yes, young, but only grubby perverts will mistake Gauguin’s aim for perversion or grubbiness. Taking its title from that strange poem by Edgar Allan Poe about a talking raven who keeps quothing “Nevermore”, this is a painting about the things that go on in your head when you wake up frightened at night and there’s nobody there, but you don’t feel alone. It’s such a vivid evocation of nocturnal fearfulness, so brilliantly imagined.
There are many such moments in this magnificent, haunting, engrossing, cleverly plotted, utterly unmissable display.