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Gauguin in the frame: How should we judge the controversial portrait painter?

Paul Guaguin has become a controversial figure in modern times. Photo: National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo - Credit: Archant

Modern sensibilities have made Paul Gauguin a deeply controversial figure, yet he played a pivotal role in the development of portrait art, shifting the focus from sitter to painter. CLAUDIA PRITCHARD reports

A head is a matter of two eyes, a nose and a mouth, arranged any way you like. So said Picasso, in whose lifetime portraiture moved far from its roots as a flattering celebration of the sitter, who had probably paid for immortality in paint.

The journey from full-length glorification of the rich and powerful to works that were as much about the painter as the subject took centuries, and a key stopping-off point was the studio of Paul Gauguin, whose portraits are the subject of a new exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

The career of Paul Gauguin conjures up for many the friendship and falling-out with Van Gogh and the hot Tahitian scenes that dominated his last work. But for a brief and important period he lived and work in Brittany, where his first serious forays into portraiture began. “He would have loved to have made lots and lots of money from commissions,” explains Cornelia Homburg, co-curator of Gauguin Portraits. “But he blew it, because the portrait’s sitter disliked what he did.”

This fundamental mismatch between the sitter’s expectations and the end result was by no means confined to Gauguin’s models. The history of modern art is peopled with disappointed patrons, but Gauguin took one of the biggest steps from verisimilitude to uncompromising artwork, paving the way for Picasso, Matisse, Freud and Bacon.

It was in Brittany in the 1880s that Gauguin came across a rural society that, despite his world travels as a merchant sailor and in the French navy from 1865 to 1871, he found almost alien. Here the language was Breton, with its roots in Celtic, and not French, the clothing outlandish, with its head coverings for women and clogs (footwear that, a flamboyant dresser, he adopted).

Settling in for three long stays between 1886 and 1891, on first arriving in Pont-Aven he found a colony of artists living alongside a conventional and traditional agricultural community. Many were from the United States, and had been there since the 1860s, others were from the Netherlands and other parts of Europe, although the tolerated invaders were known wryly and as a whole as “the Americans”.

The revered and older painter Claude Monet had been in the vanguard of French artists looking to the Atlantic coast for new landscape challenges. He had spent 10 weeks on the Breton island of Belle-Ile in 1886, capturing its rugged rocks and heavy skies.

When Gauguin first arrived at Pont-Aven, 70 miles to the north of Belle-Ile in 1886, he holed up at a lodging house where cheap rates and full board attracted other impecunious artists, among them Paul Sérusier and Émile Bernard. Their lives and work together are explored in the town’s handsome new gallery by the exhibition L’Impressionisme d’apres Pont-Aven. “Gauguin loved to be surrounded by younger artists who viewed him as a great master,” says Homburg.

The new colony’s subjects and inspirations were drawn from local discoveries. On riverside woodland walks in the Bois d’Amour Gauguin encouraged Sérusier to paint the colours he actually saw, which proved to be far from nature’s browns and greens.

A few minutes’ walk steeply uphill from the wood and pretty estuary town, Gauguin was transfixed in the Chapelle de Trémalo by a creamy, sun-lit wooden crucifix that in 1889 would inspire his Yellow Christ. His version of this religious artefact reappears in the important Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890-91), on loan to the National Gallery from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

As an artist, Gauguin liked to identify with suffering and persecution, and there is a sense in which every Gauguin portrait is a self-portrait.

The artist himself was a favourite subject, often revealing a sense of being hard done by, not always justified, since his followers flattered him and his supporters funded him. And when other models are used, the loudest voice is Gauguin’s.

One of the first of the portraits that tell us about the artist first and the sitter second was painted in the year before the School of Pont-Aven emerged. Still Life with Profile of Laval (1886) is dominated not by Gauguin’s friend and colleague Charles Laval, but by a yawning ceramic vase. Made by Gauguin himself, who worked in clay and also carved, it is one of several ceramics that teeter between mineral and animal.

Many of his pots have ‘facial’ features – eyes, ears, mouths. Laval himself is relegated colourlessly to the edge of the canvas, barely in the picture. His eyes are closed in contemplation, while before him, on a cloth whose starchy whiteness is made up of myriad colours, pieces of fruit with Cézanne-like flatness and black outlines compete for attention at the vase’s feet.

Not all the subjects of Gauguin’s portraits were shunted to the edge, least of all himself. The exhibition opens with a series of the ubiquitous self-portraits; still more of them illustrate the various stages in a career that was relatively short.

After his years at sea, he worked in finance, and only took to art in 1874, when he met the painter Camille Pissarro, through a mutual friend. Despite his creative new calling, he never lost his seaman’s brawn. Years later, in Brittany, brawling with sailors one night, he sustained a leg injury that seems never to have healed properly, and for which he took morphine, which probably contributed to his sudden death in Tahiti at the age of 54, in 1903.

There is no clue to this pitiful end in the fierce and self-confident features of his self-portraits, part of his creation of a self that is to an extent invented. So too, it increasingly seems, is his own autobiography, entitled Noa-Noa, says Homburg. (The title is the Tahitian word for ‘paradise’.) Even the individuals he claims to have befriended and immortalised on his Polynesian forays may have been composites.

This exhibition is at pains to illustrate the many facets of Gauguin’s career outside the years in Tahiti, which began in 1891, and beyond his association with and pictures of young girls there, having left a wife and family behind.

Homburg points out that the age of consent in France was lower than today’s (15) at the time of Gauguin’s forays into Polynesia. Nevertheless, the often erotic pictures of girls on the cusp of womanhood, with whom he had physical relationships, are discomforting to gallery-goers with 21st century sensitivities to child abuse.

While there is no doubting that the object of Gauguin’s greatest affections was Gauguin himself, there are lovely works on loan to London, characterised by radiant colours. Among them are Young Breton Woman (1889), Vahine no te vi (Woman with a Mango, 1892), and Young Christian Girl (1894). But it is debatable whether we learn much from them about their subjects. “We want a portrait to show us the character behind the face,” says Homburg. “With Gauguin, it’s not like that at all.”

Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery, London, from October 7 until January 26; L’Impressionisme d’Après Pont-Aven is at the Musée de Pont-Aven, Pont-Aven, Brittany, France until January 5.

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