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Gauguin – Tate Modern – Winter 2010

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.

Te Poi Poi, 1892, private collection

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?

Te Pape Nave Nave, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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, 1894, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

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.

Ondine, 1889, Cleveland Museum of Art

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.

Te Faaturuma, 1891, Worcester Art Museum

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.



Filed under Gauguin, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Uncategorized

Email to Liberal Democrats

Dear Sir / Madam,

I read with some relief that the Liberal Democrat MPs are now considering voting against legislation to allow universities to make dramatic raises to university fees. (

Can I take this opportunity please urge the Liberal Democrats to remain true to the principles underpinning their oft-trumpetted election pledge to “scrap unfair university tuition fees”? As a keen supporter of recent Liberal Democrat policies, I have voted for them at the last two general elections, secure in the knowledge that they have largely reflected my own opinions on the funding of higher education, as well as a number of other concerns. The current direction of the Liberal Democrat ministers betrays that trust in a most flagrant manner.

Allowing learners to incur debts of at least £30,000 by the time they graduate is not only immoral but will have serious impact on British society – restricting social mobility, dampening opportunity and reducing the richness of the UK’s higher education – currently one of the greatest in the world.

Therefore, can I please ask the Liberal Democrats to avoid voting for this change, thinking hard about the trust they have built up with the current supporters and the future of the British education and society? It is this which is important, not the glitter of a short period in power with the wreckers of the Conservative party.

Warm regards,

Alastair Dunning.

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Peter Doig – Tate Britain – February 2008

How does one approach Concrete Cabin II, an emblematic Peter Doig work? As a primitive man, coming across signs of some fabulously advanced citadel? As an explorer, coming across signs of a departed civilisation? Or perhaps as a voyeur spying from the dark greenery of the forest? Or maybe even as an inhabitant of the building, having finally found their way home after traipsing, without a map, through dense woods?

Concrete Cabin II, 1992

Whatever narrative approach you take, it is apparent that Doig is trying to conjure up a double world, one which contrasts the position of the painting’s character with another, perhaps more magical world, further behind. (I say character; sometimes this is true for the viewer as well. As a viewer, you have the uncanny feeling that you are meant to be in or on the edge of a Doig painting, almost immersed in the landscape he depicts.) Such magical worlds are often beguiling but they are also unsteadying. You never have a full grasp of what’s going on. Your perceptions cannot quite fathom what it conveys.

Pond Life, 1993

Sometimes these double worlds are conjured up by simple reflections. So we have the reflected house in the frozen waters of Pond Life, the painting a kind of pastoral Hopper updated for the postmodern age. Or the solitary figure in Blotter, who, perhaps standing on fragile ice, gazes intently at the lake below. But other worlds are not always born from reflections. In the diptych Ski Jacket, it is as if the one blank wing of the canvas had been loosely pressed on the other and then unfolded to produce a Warholesque reproduction on the other side. Alternatively, the majestic scope of his landscapes allows him to conjure up a more heavenly presence such as in Milky Way or Gasthof zue Muldentalsperre. But the division of worlds may also be more mundane. A solid wall, diminishing into the distance, blocks the walker in Laypeyrouse Wall from the azure world to his left. Sometimes there is not event any physical obstruction but simply a magnified sense of distance, as in Jetty or Hitch Hiker.

Milky Way, 1989-90

Conjuring up such double worlds creates a wonderfully evocative but eerie sense of emotional distance in his paintings. This is particularly visible when he indulges his habit of placing solitary figures (or lorries as in Hitch Hiker) on the canvas. Where on the earth is the Young Bean Farmer going? The sole figure on Jetty is not doing anything … yet why is he so suspicious? He is inhabiting a world you are just not sure about.

Jetty, 1994

It is this sense of distance that have led many to alight on Doig’s references to horror films and the more general emotional darkness that seems to inhabit his paintings. However, while there is definitely an eeriness in his paintings, there is also something peaceful. The broad landscapes may have a cosmic dimension but they are peaceful, serene. The presence of the phosphorescent blobs in many of his paintings suggest something more playful and benign – Ariel-like spirits hovering in the human world. Other, more recent paintings, like the aforementioned Lapeyrouse Wall, seem belligerently neutral.

But whatever narrative or atmosphere you perceive in Doig’s paintings, they fall apart when the canvases, teeming with gestural life, are viewed close up. From a distance, Doig’s slabs of paint coalesce to form their ambiguous narratives. But close up the artist inhabits a gestural world of abstraction. Doig’s interest in double worlds extends to a formal level.

It’s not easily visible from reproductions but easy to witness at the gallery. But try looking at the heavy tears of phosphorescent light that inhabit so many of his paintings and see how they become invasive white blobs when seen from nearby, as if they had simply been dropped on the paint flowing around them.

Detail of Concrete Cabin II, 1992

Or witness Concrete Cabin II, for instance, where both the trees and the building can be extracted from the figurative landscape to produce a modernist grid of horizontals and verticals; the coloured slats and white beams of the housing block forming a Mondrian-like grid, with the upright trees and their perpendicular branches forming a more organic echo of this.

Detail of Pond Life, 1993

Most spectacular is the effect of Pond Life. From a distance, a riotous tangle of long grasses is visible, acting as some kind of barrier to the viewer walking into the picture; take a few steps closer and the painting and distance becomes flattened, as they are reconfigured as sinuous serpentine strands of paint.

Superficially you could see such marks and whorls as the painterly wish to relinquish control, to indulge the physicality of thick paint. Moreover, Doig’s full-on rainbow palette gives the impression of a childish intensity, of an exaggerated and a messy lack of control. But step back again and you the paint is applied in a masterful way, conjuring up his incomplete narratives and huge layered spaces with shifting notions of fore-, mid- and background. Doig has managed to chart a path through the worlds of both figuration and abstraction and attested to the pleasures and potential of both.

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