Though ephemeral events, exhibitions can have powerful effect in redressing the reputation of an artist, uncovering previously hidden gems or revealing new aspects of a known master, perhaps. In the case of the current Gauguin show at the Tate, it has utterly destroyed his reputation as an artist of the first rank. In his poor sense of composition, complete mishandling of colour and his inability to develop a sense of narrative, Gauguin has revealed himself to be, at best, a brave decorational painter, and at worse, an over zealous amateur.
The Tate exhibition parades numerous chapters of his incompetence. Take a picture such as Te Poi Poi. From a distance, a vibrant splash of colour. But up close the painting falls apart; a mad rainbow in a blender.
The woman in stark red (whom I presume is cleaning clothes in the river, but her unfortunate posture makes it seem as if she is relieving her bowels) provides some focus in the foreground, but all around her is a maelstrom of confused colour. The blurry morass of black, blue, green and white in front of the woman makes it unclear what is land, stone or water; where does she actually exist? Above her head, daubs of livid green form a tree, painted in a manner of a ten year old copying Howard Hodgkin. The river is a bizarre colour – a creamy white giving way to an unforgiving dark blue. Further back, nothing much happens – just more application of bright colours, with an ill painted stick figure on the other riverbank. What is this picture about?
Gauguin’s insistence on using as many colours as possible detract from the paintings. There is no articulate use of the palette to encourage a particular emotional environment. Rather, he is like the primary school pupil let loose on the colouring set, a meaningless melange of reds, oranges, purples, yellows etc etc. Sometimes, the colours coalesce in a blackening mess. In Te Pape Nave Nave, the characters become lost; to work as as a painting, the characters need to be bigger and dominate the canvas; instead they are overwhelmed as the kaleidoscopic landscape prevails over them, reducing their presence to bystanders.
Of course it wasn’t Gauguin’s aim to create realistic or perspectivally true images. As contemporaries such as Cezanne and successors like Picasso would explore with far greater rigour, there was a lot painterly mileage in such investigations. And perhaps I am being unfair to him in criticising him for his obvious weaknesses as a figurative painter, when his oeuvre is part of the pathway to abstraction. You can see Gauguin in this exhibition (which really emphasises the experimental nature of his art, his constant dallying with different media and styles of depiction) trying to explore the ramifications of the flatness of the canvas he is painting on. But it becomes sloppy. So instead of the landscape spitting up and then reforming itself in renewed and different dimensions, the landscape itself just falls apart, leaving its unhappy combination of colour.
Arearea No Varua Ino is perhaps beguiling at first glance, but quickly becomes ludicrous. The woman leaning downwards has no facial features; she is a just a chunk of body, seeming to wash her hair in the inexplicable pink flames. The other woman, on the left of the canvas, is surly in expression, possibly under the malign influence of the totem behind. But it’s difficult to unpack why. Two figures in the background gesticulate aimlessly. As happens elsewhere, his characters lack in an emotional narrative – they become passive, shorn of activity and Gauguin ends up not painting individuals but cyphers. It is difficult to read, empathise or admire Gauguin’s paintings; any sense of drama evaporates in the coloured fuzz of Gauguin’s own view of paradise.
Overall, his treatment of women is ludicrous, reducing them to mutes with a squashed inner life (although, at least they appear – apparently men hardly exist in Gauguin’s world). They are sometimes sensuous, sometimes brooding, occasionally anxious, but nearly always one-dimensional. There are no clues as to why such characters are acting in a particular way. Do any of the women in Gauguin’s visual universe actually talk or interact? Or are they simply vehicles for Gauguin’s own narrow binary views about the innate goodness and badness of women, tarted up by some cliched myths? Despite the nudity and the presumed sensuality, his females lack much trace of tenderness. Closer inspection indeed reveals something a little more interesting, a touch more ambiguous – their eyes are often askance, hinting at a kind of suspicion of the world around them. The figure at the very left of The Bathers glances out of the canvas – as if berating Gauguin or the viewer for invading their territory. At least Gauguin had the gumption to include a degree of self reflection.
Or perhaps it was simply the fact that Gauguin could not paint faces very well; providing the nuance of tone that would allow for the nuance of emotional expression was just beyond him. Have a look at the lumpen, boiled down profiles in the late paintings, Two Women and The Escape. He even resorted to turning females around to avoid painting their faces, such as in Ondine / In the Waves and The Bathing Place.
And yet Gauguin continues to be popular. His myth embodies the industrial dream of escaping to a personal and geographical Eden. The inclusion of text (always a handy anchor for those uncomfortable with the strangeness of the image) provide a faux philosophy to underpin such a myth, easy reference points for the cliched mind. The question “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are we Going?” is not very original.
The exhibition does an intelligent job of deconstructing all this. Not only did Gauguin cultivate his own myth (Gauguin calls himself seduced by Tahiti’s “virgin land and its primitive and simple race .. the Eve of my choice is almost an animal”), but it blossomed after his death, Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and the Sixpence being only of many cultural productions that allowed the romantic notions of Gauguin to spin out of control.
Equally, Gauguin suits the age of reproduction. His paintings and his colours often appear in print, on television. The actual paintings are so flat, with the paint to thinly applied on the canvas (Braque is another painting in this mode), that one actually loses little when the painting are printed in miniature – the bright colours fluoresce and attract the roving eye. Compare this to Van Gogh whose shares a richness of palette but whose fecund, passionate impasto becomes lifeless when printed in a book.
Is there anything to save him? Occasionally, Gauguin achieves success when he reduces the complexity of his paintings – fewer figures, fewer colours, a more confined space. Te Faaturuma sticks out. By ditching the coloured foilage that pollutes most of his paintings, replacing it with solid planes of colour, Gauguin attains a must greater psychological impact – this is one of the exhibition’s paintings where the characters inner selves have much greater resonance – it’s interesting to note that Gauguin’s paintings set inside are almost always more powerful than those set out of doors. There is a closer link with abstraction, and the destination of Gauguin’s oeuvre becomes clearer. More broadly, the colours themselves are superficially attractive, and his experiments in colour are a part of the link between the Impressions and the Cubists. I can see an argument that says every gallery in the world should have a Gauguin. But I think one is enough.