Friday, October 08, 2010
GAUGUIN AT TATE MODERN
I had booked early for this show, hoping to transform my indifference to Gauguin into enthusiasm. I've seen his paintings in museums here and there and of course in reproductions - his art seems made for high-tech printing, looks great in coffee-table books and on posters, cards, scarves, bags and baubles such as those currently adorning the Tate Modern shop. But I don't think I ever saw a comprehensive collection of his work gathered in one place so this was an opportunity to lose my immunity to his universal appeal.
Keeping eyes wide open, I amble respectfully through the galleries, stopping for long reflective pauses. The background story I'm familiar with so I ignore the big wall-captions and never ever opt for portable audio-guide - no matter how informative, I don't want somebody's voice interrupting my own impressions. I need to have silence in my head to allow the work itself to speak to me, unmediated, if it's going to speak at all.
One thing immediately creates a barrier between the painting and the viewer: those frames! Those ornate, overwrought, overweight, overprotective gold frames - why why why do museum curators still think they must burden modern paintings with these antiquated trimmings? Do they think that art won't seem like great art to the public unless it's got ten inches of baroque chocolate box icing around it?
Never mind the frames, what about the work? Am I dazzled, excited, inspired? Well...yes and no. Gauguin's prints, woodcuts and wood-carvings are marvellous - the craftsman-artisan in him is at ease in solid media, materials he can cut and gouge and smoothe and polish. In many of his drawings there is the same sense of inhabiting the medium, neither dominated by or dominating it. Noa-Noa is a masterpiece. But put him in front of a canvas and Gauguin becomes self-conscious: he's got a message, he is an illustrator, a decorator, he makes pretty patterns out of a pretty setting. I go back and forth in the rooms, absorbing different periods of his work, but only four or five paintings escape the shocking conclusion forming in my mind that, underneath the bohemian runaway rogue artist with his hat and cape and exotic teen-age vahine, a conventional, bourgeois banker is trying to get out.
Compare Gauguin to Van Gogh - I'm sorry but I have to make that comparison - and the difference is obvious. Vincent loses himself in the subject he chooses to paint, he is entranced by it, his technique is entirely at the service of it. All that he has learned about colour and form sits before a tree, a field or a person and humbly offers itself, like a lover. I'm yours, he says. Every drawing and painting is for Van Gogh a love affair and the pen or brush caresses the love-object, coaxes it to reveal itself.
For Gauguin painting is not such a visceral, intuitive experience. He's attracted to the picturesque, the exotic, and uses elements of it to construct a mythical scenario. He has an agenda. 'Maker of Myth' is an apt description of the man as well as the artist. I think that when Paul came to Arles, finally giving in to Vincent's lonely and hero-worshipping entreaties, he must have been stunned by the work Vincent had produced. Gauguin was sensitive enough to realise that this work was something unprecedented and perhaps he knew in his heart that it was far beyond anything he himself could have created. Of course this is just conjecture, but my feeling is that his pride couldn't allow him to admit this and the famous Gauguin/Van Gogh fight and ensuing ear-slicing incident was an explosion of these undercurrents - Paul's envy and competitiveness, Vincent's disappointment that Paul had not expressed the appreciation of his work that he had hoped for.
So, am I glad I saw Gauguin at Tate Modern? Absolutely. Do I recommend this show? Definitely. Did I lose my immunity to Gauguin? No, apart from the prints and wood-carvings.