Outside Milan’s shiny new Museo delle Culture (MUDEC) I join a vast snaking queue of excited, chattering people. I’m impressed by the notion that, on this grey Monday morning, so many debonair Italians are jostling to get a look at the work of Post Impressionist Paul Gauguin. In front of me a girl of ten strains impatiently on her mother’s arm. What will she make of the artist’s bare breasted Tahitian lovers, I wonder?
Rounding the corner, it dawns on me that MUDEC is running two blockbuster shows and that I’ve actually been in the wrong queue. I’ve been lining up to buy tickets for a large exhibition celebrating the cultural impact of Barbie dolls. What a way to begin. It’s a favourite mental fantasy of mine to imagine artists from another era jumping forward in time and getting to see the long queues for shows of their work, not to mention all those tacky fridge magnets, tote bags and novelty mugs… I imagine that for Gauguin, whose life was one long flight from Western civilization into the dream of a world he (dubiously) labelled ‘primitive’, the direct juxtaposition of his oeuvre with a celebration of shitty hollow plastic dolls would be enough to make him give up the fight entirely.
Still, I’m hoping this exhibition will give me insight into an artist whose work I have always found patchy and frustrating. Descended creatively from fluffy, woolly artistic forebears like Pissarro, Gauguin quickly developed a mature style of his own – all solid colours and thick outlines which offer a direct bridge to Matisse, Picasso and by extension much that followed in the 20th century. Yet to me his work seems cold, and I struggle to really connect with the emotion of these strange, late images of a lumpy island paradise – despite their dazzling colour. Is this because I’ve been swayed by all the stories I’ve read of a morally dubious man who left his wife and kids to swan off to Tahiti, bringing with him the horrors of syphilis? I figure that a show like this, at a spanking new ethnographic museum, will not dodge the tough cultural and moral questions that Gauguin raises with almost every brushstroke.
The show is serious and dramatic. The space is plunged in blue darkness while spotlights pick out the artworks individually, bathing them in halos of dazzling sunshine, like windows into another world. We start our journey in the 1870s. The thirty year old Gauguin is a well to-do Paris stockbroker with an interest in art. His early works are woolly plein air scenes influenced by Impressionism.
‘Woman Sewing’ from 1880 is the first remarkable painting in the exhibition, hinting at Post-Impressionism. It conjures up that famous Cezanne quote about the desire ‘to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting.’ The figure has real fleshy weight yet, under these bright lights, she also manages to shimmer with life. This picture signposts something tighter and more enduring than the ethereal Monet and Pissarro, whilst also offering a premonition of Seurat’s Divisionist dots. Perhaps most amazingly, this was all achieved while Gauguin was still a full-time stockbroker.
As Gauguin’s story unfolds, I can’t help feeling sympathy for his wife. She probably thought she’d married a middle class career man who would settle down to a quiet bowler-hatted life in Paris suburbia. But when this late starter hit his 40s, he abandoned his career and left bourgeois society to start the gradual flight from civilization that was to consume him.
This process began in Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he painted the traditional garb of the Breton women and found himself at the heart of an artist’s colony there. Later in the 1880s (after a famously ill-fated attempt at living and working alongside Van Gogh) he ended up in Le Pouldu, an even more remote agrarian outpost.
The next logical step, then, was to leave France and search overseas for an ideal of the ‘primitive’ existence. What exactly was he searching for? Quotes from Gauguin regarding the subjects he encountered in his new home of Tahiti make me wince. His ‘Tahitian Woman with a Flower’, for example, is referred to in a letter as ‘not very pretty by European standards.’ (Whereas I’m quite sure she thought he was God’s gift.) The picture itself remains, nonetheless, a great portrait, for it expresses something of this weird culture clash. Gauguin’s mark-making may have reached its mature style, with simplified bold colours, outlined shapes and stylized forms. Yet if his desire is to chase what he called, ‘the primitive’, it’s clear he’s stopping some way short. This is a very Western portrait, a dweller on a remote island posed as though for a Renaissance painter – soberly covered with a blouse, her hands folded in an undeniable, and possibly very conscious, echo of the Mona Lisa. He sees her, but does he really ‘see’ her? And, for that matter, does she see him? This picture seems to sum up the contradiction at the heart of much of Gauguin’s late Tahiti output, and the reason I’ve always found it difficult to connect with these works. Tahiti is to him an idea, and not a reality. I’m not inclined to take his word for any of it.
I’m at first frustrated to see that, despite all my hopes, this ethnographic museum has failed to add any extra context to Gauguin’s island travels. We’re expected to take them on face value, in total isolation from history. I thought we’d at least get to see what the native art of Tahiti looked like around this time, and how it might have influenced him.
But no – and as I walk around the exhibition, I realize slowly that to contextualize these images would be to miss the point in quite a spectacular way. Gauguin wasn’t documenting island life like a news reporter. He was myth-making – self-aggrandizing in paint. These works were made to be seen back home in France and sell him as the most radical and enviable artist among his peers – giving up Paris for paradise.
‘Self Portrait with the Yellow Christ’ dissects the self-mythologising of this middle-aged Gauguin. Audaciously, yet rather wonderfully, it completely encapsulates his perception of his own importance. He is flanked by two examples of his own work, their feet in very differing traditions. On the left, his ‘Yellow Christ’ stands for the Western tradition. To the right his sculpture of a ‘Grotesque Head’ is influenced by Polynesian art. He looks out from between them, not with an arrogant sneer but with serious determination.
Gauguin was the model for both the ‘Yellow Christ’ and the head sculpture, making this a kind of triple portrait – with the public face at the centre, and his two hidden good and bad artistic faces flanking him like the opposite sides of a coin. He seems to volunteer himself as the one who can bring these two traditions together, travelling off on his artistic voyage partly in the guise of a long-suffering Christ figure. ‘It’s a hard job’, he seems to say, ‘but I’ll do it.’
Life in Tahiti was harder than Gauguin expected though. He never had enough money. He hoped his work would cause a sensation in France, but it was largely ignored by the public and scorned by the critics. He lost his dealer and, possibly due to the onset of syphilis, his health began deteriorating. There was an alleged suicide attempt. That’s how wonderful his paradise proved to be.
Retreating to the even more remote Marquesas Islands, he consoled himself with sexual exploits, taking teenage girls as wives and living in a hut he dubbed ‘the house of pleasure’.
Looking at many of the sun-drenched Tahiti pictures, it’s clear there’s a disconnect between this squalid story and the painted spin he put on it, which makes for a strange viewing experience. Yet the point this show makes again and again is that Gauguin was not an artist who wanted to reflect his reality in art. The fabricated element of these works is nowhere better expressed than the fact that a handful of the show’s ‘Tahiti’ pictures were actually produced during a return trip to Paris. The artist was painting his life as he wanted it to be seen, not as it really was. Tellingly, he once told Van Gogh that he sought to convey ‘the wildness I see, which is also in myself.’ The search for some form of basic ‘primitive’ life untouched by Western civilization was not, perhaps, an external search at all. It was a flight into the imagination.
Gauguin died in 1903. Just a few years later, in 1907, Picasso saw his late work and incorporated elements into his ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ – the picture which kick-started Modernism. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson writes that Gauguin showed him how ‘disparate elements… could be combined into a synthesis that was of its time yet timeless.’
‘Gauguin: Tales from Paradise’ is at MUDEC Milan until Feb 21st 2016. €12