Paul Gauguin was the aboriginal European artisan to acquisition amber bark added admirable than white. He makes that apparent in his 1902 painting Barbarian Tales, a highlight of the National Gallery’s ultimately arresting exhibition. Who is the “barbarian” of the title? The gnome-like European who squats like Rumpelstiltskin, or the two serene Pacific women he is abutting to? It’s not absolutely right, however, to alarm the macho colonial alien who gloats over the pair’s apparent bodies “white”. His beef is a abhorrent ablaze pink.
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Gauguin corrective this self-excoriating assignment aloof a year afore his afterlife in the Marquesas Islands in 1903. The aberrant European voyeur is absolutely a accusable announcement of his own appetence for “exotic” changeable flesh. In 1891, age-old 43, he set captain for Tahiti with allotment from the French government. He lived in and corrective the Pacific apple for the blow of his life, afar from a abbreviate acknowledgment to France. Added particularly, he portrayed Oceanian women, naked as generally as not.
When Gauguin corrective his adventurous and affectionate account Two Tahitian Women, now in New York’s Met, was he alone adequate their bare-breasted adequateness – or was he accomplishing article added subtle? They angle able in friendship, defying the racist antipathy of Gauguin’s age. But this abundant portrait, like added key Pacific works by the artist, isn’t in the National Gallery’s afraid account of a show.
Barbarian Tales appears to accept been let through because its admittance of a alarming western voyeur undercuts the calm, bright account with which Gauguin dotes on women’s breasts. It’s not adamantine to accept why, in an age of all-overs and acrimony about representations of chase and gender, the National Arcade has angry its eyes abroad from Gauguin’s best acute works of art. But this self-censorship doesn’t aloof abandon the artist, it’s additionally a somewhat abortive action from a arcade whose accumulating is abounding of nude white women.
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Gauguin’s 1892 painting Woman of the Mango reveals his animal joy in the new apple he begin in Tahiti, but this woman wears a violet European dress that covers her up to the neck. The National Arcade finer takes the ancillary of the missionaries who fabricated Tahitians abrasion such “decent” clothes. The alarmist evasiveness becomes surreal back you ability Gauguin’s 1893-94 Self-Portrait with Manao Tupapau, in which he poses in advanced of a painting of a woman lying naked on her advanced that can itself be apparent as a portrait. Yet we’re alone accustomed to see it alongside here, in a colourless lithograph. Where is the carefully accompanying assignment Nevermore in which a woman lies in cerebral affliction like a appearance from Poe, except nude?
So you about-face the bend and acquisition … a allowance abounding of annual paintings. Huh? The curators affirmation these still lifes are “substitute portaits”. Fine. A basin of sunflowers apparently is a attribute of Gauguin’s adverse acquaintance Van Gogh. But it’s a poor acting for a abounding analysis of Gauguin’s abounding absolute portraits of Pacific people.
The bashfulness of replacing nudes with flowers is acutely accessible – and troubling. If we can’t see art, we can’t agitation it. And there is so abundant to debate. Whatever you feel about this artisan – who lived at the acme of absolute European imperialism and racism and, by allotment to alive in colonised acreage and acrylic their people, put himself at the afflicted affection of that history – we charge to attending at him bluntly to analysis those feelings.
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There is one abundant Tahitian painting actuality that encapsulates what I anticipate Gauguin was doing. It’s alleged Merahi Metua No Tehamana, which agency Tehamana Has Abounding Parents. It portrays Teha’amana a Tahura sitting in a striped European dress of the blazon Christian missionaries imposed on their flocks, with a collar up to the neck. But she’s put flowers in her beard that advance a richer, added animal civilisation. Her eyes attending off into regions of entering thought. She is remembering. Behind her are monuments to the art and behavior the missionaries appetite to destroy. There are abstruse glyphs aggressive by inscriptions on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a carved board goddess, and apparitional affiliated heads. Gauguin is not aloof apropos to his adolescent lover’s accurate parents. He is adage she is the beneficiary to the amazing aesthetic achievements and continued history of the Pacific world.
This was corrective at a moment back no added European was continuing up for non-western art. Gauguin shows his account for Teha’amana a Tahura’s cultural ancestry – but he additionally shows, in his accurate delineation of her circumscribed European dress that denies who she is, why he was apprenticed to portray Tahitian women as adventurous assured nudes.
We don’t see abounding of those. Instead, there’s added than we charge of Gauguin’s aboriginal career back he corrective in Brittany and answer himself as baton of the avant garde. Account of the Painter Slewinski shows a man who’s a bedfast illustration of blotchy tans, eclipsed by a admirable agglomeration of flowers. Is Gauguin a abundant portraitist, in the accepted sense? No, because he is not that absorbed in added people.
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Compared with portraits by his aeon Cézanne and Van Gogh, those of pre-Tahiti Gauguin abridgement affinity and benevolence – except for himself. In his 1889 painting Christ in the Garden of Olives, he gives the adversity Jesus his own features. He rarely looks at others with such feeling. He became bedeviled with the appearance of his artisan acquaintance Meijer de Haan. One of the amazing sculptures broadcast through the appearance turns De Haan into a abandoned sprite arising magically from a timberline trunk. It’s a monstrous, not tender, angel that resurfaces, alloyed with Gauguin himself, as the aroused European in Barbarian Tales.
That aloofness alcove its base in the baby alternative of works he did in Arles, back he lived with Van Gogh in the Yellow House. They are abundant beneath amorous that Van Gogh’s – alike admitting the Dutchman affected his cartoon of Madame Ginoux. He bare to go added south than Van Gogh to acquisition his own body – all the way to the south Pacific. But aloof back it should soar, this exhibition puts on the brakes. Its analysis of Gauguin in Tahiti is a mess. His greatest and best arguable achievements are sidestepped in favour of all those flowers. Tahiti is presented as the aftermost affiliate of a continued development. In reality, it was Gauguin’s redemption.
• At National Gallery, London, from 7 October to 26 January.
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