Tuesday, September 28, 2010


 A Cuban in London (* See link below) pointed out that there will be a huge Gauguin retrospective opening at the Tate. We are lucky to have five pieces by Gauguin showing at the current post-Impressionist show at De Young but there will be 150 works by Gauguin showing in London. Sometimes San Francisco's position as a provincial city comes up and bites me on the big toe (HA! You thought I was going to say something else?).

I particularly liked this quote from the director, Nicholas Serota - except that I would compare Gauguin with other artists of established quality. Hirst or G&G are today's artists that want to shock but only succeed in producing more schlock.

"But there are other aspects. Gauguin is an artist who created his own persona and established his own myth as to what kind of a man he was. That is highly relevant when you come to think about an artist like Damien Hirst, or even Gilbert and George, or other artists who have created their own identity."

That is certainly something that I tried to highlight in my piece on Gauguin. Although I think that most artists try to reinvent themselves and that was even more true in the 19th century. Most of the artists that we now revere came from the bourgeois class and were expected to follow in their father's footsteps. Maybe it was easier for Gauguin to keep on reinventing himself because he never knew his father, who died when Gauguin was just a baby.

 'Yellow Christ' 1889 / image courtesy Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York
 National Gallery of Scotland

As its name suggests, Gauguin's work was concerned with inner rather than external truth. He combined stylized images of Breton figures in a shallow pictorial space with a 'vision' in the top right corner. Thus the 'real' and imagined worlds depicted, are separated by the strong, diagonal of the tree, which was inspired by Japanese prints. Like the Impressionists, Gauguin studied Japanese prints and even adopted their use of bold, flat areas of solid color. The figures are distributed unconventionally, cut off and framing the canvas edge at the left and in the foreground. No identifiable source of light is used, a device which looks forward to developments in Fauvism.

Christ in the Garden of Olives

Gauguin's Famous Picture "Christ in the Garden of Olive-Trees" was painted in Britanny in 1889. Christ's features do not allow any doubt, that painting is the artist's self portrait in which he wanted to express his state of prostration and despair. Simultaneously with his bitter feeling that nobody understood him, grew his conviction that he was the "Saviour" of modern painting, one who could find the source and truth of art on an island in Oceania where lived good and happy people unaffected by European civilization.

He wanted to go there at any price, but he was penniless and without prospects for help. In his picture he identified his life and suffering with the Passion of Christ. The composition is conceived as a diptych divided by a tree trunk. The half figure presentation of Christ pushed in the left corner of the painting seems to intensify his humiliation and grief. The figure of Christ is in a folk-naive style and the unnatural red of his hair symbolizes the Saviour's human suffering. The landscape is mysterious and enigmatic. While being fairly true to the description in the Gospel, it portrays neither the environs outside the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem nor the Breton landscape. It is identical with the landscape of an island of Polynesia with its fairyland colour and peaceful atmosphere. However, Gauguin has painted Christ in Britanny in such a setting before his trip to Tahiti. This was only his genial preconception and vision of a lost paradise, which, as he then believed, he was not destinated to reach. In this way, the Breton Christ, depicted in the imaginary Tahitian setting, as Christ in the Garden of Olive-Trees, became a mystical and artistic connection between the two worlds created by Gauguin -- the Breton and Tahitian mythologies.                 

I don't agree with Adrian Searle's contention that it's Gauguin's faults that make him great - he's great IN SPITE of his faults.

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