Gauguin: Maker of Myth
This new retrospective at the National Gallery reveals the complexity of Gauguin’s relationships with women.
The blockbuster Gauguin exhibition that was organized by the Tate Modern in London is now on view at the National Gallery in Washington. The show includes 120 works that span Gauguin's lifetime, providing new insight into how he used myth, religion, and color. But the most intriguing feature of the exhibition to this reporter is Gauguin's schizophrenic depictions of women as either innocent virgin types or wicked temptresses,a conflict that permeates his quest for both spirituality and an earthly paradise. (See slideshow above.)
An entire museum gallery is devoted to Gauguin’s depictions of women. There is even a provocative set of wooden door panels that Gauguin carved for his home in the South Seas; on the front is a sign reading “House of Pleasure” and bas-reliefs of huge exotic women wearing almost nothing.
While today Gauguin may be most famous for his portrayals of innocent-looking , statuesque young Tahitian girls lolling about on palm-ringed beaches, he had what might be considered a fairly conventional upbringing and began his artistic life as a Sunday painter.
Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 to a journalist father, Clovis, and a half-Peruvian mother, Aline. Clovis took the family to Peru in 1849 to escape the political aftermath of the 1848 Revolution. Tragically, Clovis died on the voyage; when Aline arrived in Peru, she and her two children moved to Lima to live with Aline’s uncle. Four years later, the family returned to France to live with Clovis’s father in Orleans.
The young Gauguin was a good student, and, after graduating from a seminary, he did a required tour of military duty. In 1871 he quit the Navy to become a stockbroker in Paris; there he began painting, collecting contemporary art, and frequenting cafés popular with avant-garde artists and writers. In 1873 he married Mette-Sophie Gad, a Danish woman living in Paris. After their fifth child was born in 1883, they moved to Copenhagen, where Gauguin again worked as a stockbroker.
However, just one year later he left his job, abandoned his family, and returned to Paris to devote himself to painting. There he mingled with Van Gogh, Pissarro, and occasionally Cézanne, sometimes exhibiting with the Impressionists. By 1888 he was disenchanted with Impressionism, which he felt lacked symbolic depth. Instead, he sought to create his own “primitive” style and traveled to Brittany to record its picturesque scenery and rural farm life. “I love Brittany,” he wrote Van Gogh. “I find the wild and primitive here.”
Many of the Brittany paintings are in the exhibition, including The Loss of Virginity, a symbolic painting of a young Breton girl laying nude in a field in the countryside, holding a flower in one hand and cradling a fox on her chest with her other hand. Is the fox an alter ego for Gauguin or a symbol of perversity? In the far distance Breton villagers are marching to church, an ironic commentary on the defiled young maiden.
The next few years were filled with tumult; Gauguin traveled to Martinique to find a tropical paradise where he could paint and “live on fish and fruit.” Instead he became ill with dysentery and malaria and returned to France. Then he visited Van Gogh in Arles. They quarreled; Van Gogh, overcome with rage, cut off his left ear. Gauguin fled back to Paris.