…by the life of Paul Gauguin.
I managed to catch the exhibition in Tate Modern last weekend (very last minute as always).
Going there, I probably knew more or less what most people have heard about the painter: French, friend (most of the times) of Vincent Van Gogh, a bohemian and a traveller, with the bulk of his work centered around Tahiti.
All these identities were of course largely true about Gauguin but what was also demonstrated at the particular exhibition was the artist’s evolution in the years that formed him as a person and as a painter.
Born in Paris, he moved to Peru with his family at the age of 3 where he lived until he was 7. Coming back to France, he lived in Orleans, served in the navy and then returned to Paris as a young man to pursue a career as a stockbroker. Following a stock market crash, he abandoned his position to pursue painting professionally. I have no idea what it must have meant to be in finance back then but a career change like that would probably make headlines in today’s world.
Before embarking on his life-changing trip to Tahiti, he had already lived in Copenhagen, painted with Van Gogh in Arles, worked at the Panama Canal (as you would), lived in Martinique and estranged himself from his wife and his children. The exhibition touched upon his angst as an painter, his worries about his artistic future and about the success of his work. In Room 4, we caught a glimpse of Gauguin’s sketches, research for forms and themes he would later explore on his canvases; geese necks, Breton girls and Javanese dancers. In some rooms the paintings don’t immediately bring the artist in mind. They lack what would later become his signature style, the choice of colours and the absence of analytical detail that are synonymous with Gauguin’s major works.
What is ultimately inspiring about Gauguin’s life, as seen in the Tate exhibition, is the struggle to find a unique voice through individual choices, painstaking practice and engagement with different styles and subjects. Although his artistic visions were often blurred by colonialism and even misogyny, Gauguin managed to carve out his own place in art following a path of trials and tribulations that only added to his myth. The title of the exhibition ‘Maker of Myth’ couldn’t be more appropriate.