London is hosting the second half of one of the most remarkable double acts in the history of art.
The spring exhibition calendar was dominated by “The Real Van Gogh” at the Royal Academy, this autumn the most exciting art show in town is “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” at Tate Modern. On display are some of Gauguin’s greatest achievements across his career and in many diverse media. Together, they emphasize what a different kind of artist Gauguin was from Vincent.
The two are forever linked by the fraught two months they spent together in 1888 at Arles, and in some ways -- the use of heightened, non-naturalistic color, for example -- they were working on parallel lines. There were, however, crucial differences of temperament and approach, which was one reason why they got on each other’s nerves.
Van Gogh, with a few notable exceptions -- “Starry Night,” for one -- painted what he saw in front of his eyes. Gauguin sometimes did that too but he was at his best when he let his dreamy imagination flow.
That’s what this exhibition is about. It isn’t a chronological survey of his work. The theme is about how Gauguin told stories, invented private myths, and just made up stuff. Seldom in his best work are we looking at a straightforward transcription of reality.
When Gauguin painted “Christ in the Garden of Olives” (1889), for example, he depicted himself as the main figure, with the addition of red hair (like Van Gogh’s). What’s going on here? Is it self-dramatization, irony, identity theft? Perhaps a bit of all three. It’s characteristic of Gauguin’s art that you’re never sure what’s going on. You can never pin him down.
What’s also typical is a bit of religious narrative, puzzlingly recycled. Gauguin went to Polynesia but he didn’t often paint everyday life in Tahiti. More frequently what you see is Christian imagery, relocated, with the meanings blurred and altered: Eve and the serpent, the earthly Paradise.
Figures drift from one image to another, they mutate and turn up in differing media -- paint, print, pastel, wood carvings, ceramics. That’s another difference between Van Gogh and Gauguin. Using the classical distinction between a hedgehog which knows one big thing and a fox that knows many, Van Gogh was the former: He was able to paint (and draw) supremely well.
Gauguin wasn’t such a great painter. But like a fox (one of his favorite symbols), he investigated all manner of visual methods. His sculpture and works on paper, well represented in this show, were more radically creative than his oil paintings.
The little stoneware sculpture “Oviri” (1894) is one of Gauguin’s most terrifying creations: a goggle-eyed female nude, with a huge head and tiny legs, a snarling wolf at her feet and two wolf cubs clutched in her hands.
He wanted this nightmarish creature placed on his grave (where a bronze replica stands today). Nobody has ever quite worked out what “Oviri” is -- goddess, demon, alter ego -- and Gauguin never explained. Possibly, he didn’t really know.
A lot of his work is about the mystery of the imagination. A wonderful early painting “Still Life With Profile of Laval” (1886) shows a friend and fellow artist staring at a conventional pile of apples, like a picture by Cezanne, except that what has caught Laval’s attention is one of Gauguin’s own ceramics.
This is a bizarre, bulbous hollow object, unlike anything in 19th-century art. The effect is surreal. One of the reasons Gauguin was such an important artist is that he points forward to surrealism and abstraction. That little ceramic might almost be an Anish Kapoor.
The great thing about this show is that it stresses what was truly interesting about Gauguin: not that he went to the South Seas and lived in a hut but how he changed the course of art.
“Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” which opens tomorrow at Tate Modern, London, and runs through Jan. 16, 2011, is supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Feb. 27-June 5, 2011). Information: http://www.tate.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford, chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News, is the author of “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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