PAUL Gauguin was an artist with many #MeToo moments. His interest in underage girls is the most famous thing about him — apart from being one of the most innovative in the history of art. If he hadn’t been so exceptional, he would surely have been cast aside by modern art critics and curators for his treatment of women. Instead, he gets yet another solo exhibition. This time it’s all about showing his brilliance in a hitherto-unacknowledged area.
Gauguin Portraits is the title of the exhibition at the National Gallery in London, and the title says it all. When the show opened there were many who doubted that he was a portrait painter at all. A few weeks later he was being acknowledged as one of the greatest portraitists who has ever lived.
These accolades came along with repeated assertions that he was also a very unpleasant human being. He was certainly self-absorbed and inconsiderate. He did have some good points, such as being a better cook and housekeeper than poor old Vincent Van Gogh when they shared a house together briefly.
When it came to dream locations, Gauguin and Vincent had very different attitudes. For the Dutchman, the south of France was the height of exoticism. For the Frenchman, the only place for real inspiration was the tropics. How he craved the light and the atmosphere. Above all the women, or to be more accurate, the girls.
His vision of a fast-disappearing Polynesian paradise is one of the most important contributions to modern art. Since then, nobody can look at a scene of the South Pacific without having some of Gauguin’s painted poetry whispering in their ear. Astonishingly, his canvas of a 14-year-old Tahitian girl was voted “Britain’s most romantic painting” in a poll 10 years ago.
It could all have been very different if Gauguin had been, for example English or American. Being French, he had easy access to the places that made his name. Martinique to begin with, then French Polynesia. Without this element of nationality, his destination could have been the Malay Archipelago or Central America.
Perceptions of Southeast Asia would have taken another form if an artist of his later standing had immortalised this region. Instead, we got Frank Swettenham — a very able water-colourist but a far greater admin man.
In Bali, they had the benefit of a few artists whose reputations are several leagues below Gauguin’s. A.J. Le Mayeur and Walter Spies were two of the most acclaimed. Not being French may have held back the careers of the Belgian and German.
If Gauguin had decided on Southeast Asia instead of the South Pacific, he would no doubt have been as beguiled by the womenfolk as he was further east. Even in Paris he had a relationship with a teenager who was recorded as being half Malay and half Indian.
In all probability his advances would have been less acceptable in a region that was predominantly Muslim. He might not have been so excited by that culture either. It was totems that he loved. Something that Islam is vigorously opposed to.
Being brought up Catholic, he was used to carved imagery, and his excitement was compounded by what he found in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. These were living gods that meant more to the local population than the tired old imagery of Europe did back home. To make things worse he picked fights with the French community, especially the police and the Catholic hierarchy.
There was one bishop he had a particular distaste for, who was perhaps a more serious paedophile than himself. His revenge was to carve a wooden statue of the bishop in the form of a lecherous satyr.
He undoubtedly cared about local people, and even more about their traditions. This made him unusual for his time as well as making his work so exceptional. The 19th century artist’s influence was huge, including on the giants of the 20th century.
Picasso and Matisse owed him a considerable debt, as did almost every artist after him. Paradoxically, the artist he was meant to teach but who ended up teaching him, up to a point, was Van Gogh.
In a world where it is thought that Western art did all the influencing, it’s a relief to find Gauguin. Happiest in the South Pacific, it was also the place that inspired him. Not just the women. There was the setting, the weather and the traditions. He sired new children in French Polynesia, often forgetting his original family, who had relocated to Denmark.
His greatest solace was art. It was not just paintings but also ceramics and woodcarving that took his fancy. Anything that could convey his fascination with the environment that he found himself in. The setting may not have been perfect — he certainly felt that progress and the French had already destroyed many of the old ways — but he wanted to make as much as possible of what was left.
He turned to more than his surroundings for inspiration. It was also the people who became his models, although few of them were prepared to sit for this very difficult man. Unlike most roving Western artists, he treated them as real individuals.
He also imposed many of his own concerns onto them. Most of all he enjoyed painting himself. It was the way he painted that made him extraordinary. His use of symbols, his distortion of images and above all his use of colour mark him as the supreme innovator that he was. It will be hard for Polynesia to ever free itself of the image that he created.