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August 04 2012

Van Gogh to Kandinsky; Edvard Munch: Graphic Works; Picasso and Modern – review

Scottish National Gallery; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery so ominous one cannot immediately shrug off the memory. It shows a grey stone colonnade in some nameless place stretching away into infinity. An esplanade on the right is depthless and deserted, more like dark water than land. The interior of the colonnade is an open tomb. The painting puts you on the spot, confronts you with its eerie perspective beneath a rain-laden sky that is not quite day and not quite night. But where exactly are you?

This startling watercolour is by the Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert. It was painted in 1908 in Ostend. You might wonder, as some have, whether it has something to do with those murderous times, when millions of Africans were slaughtered during Leopold I's reign in the Belgian Congo. And perhaps it carries deep overtones of horror and sorrow.

But it may also come from Spilliaert's own experience as a chronic insomniac who walked the streets of Ostend by night to distract himself from the pain of a stomach ulcer. His scenes are silent, monochromatic, empty of all human presence except his own wretched solitude; this is the art of a noctambulist.

Spilliaert's work is not often seen outside Belgium. Indeed many of the names in the tremendous Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 may be unfamiliar, since symbolist art of any sort has had mixed fortunes, and symbolist landscapes in particular. Indeed this is the first pan-European show, to my knowledge, and not the least thrill of it is the sight of the continent stretching out before you, from the Scandinavian fjords to la France profonde, from the ravines of Mallorca to the dark forests of Bavaria.

The facts of a landscape are never supposed to be the point for these artists – "don't paint the thing itself, paint the effect it produces" wrote the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé – but one cannot help relishing the sight, and not just the sense, of place; the lakes of Finland, bright as mirrors, and the blue snows of the Eiger even in high summer.

As for the effect produced, it is almost overwhelmingly intense. More than a hundred paintings have been borrowed from museums across Europe, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Munch, Arnold Böcklin, August Strindberg and James Ensor, and the mood plunges and soars by the room. It rises to ecstasy with Ensor's great vision of Christ Calming the Storm, in which sea and sky appear to unite in radiant meltdown; and it sinks into the most plangent gloom with the German painter Franz von Stuck's Evening Landscape, in which dark trees glower against the fading twilight.

Light, to adapt Manet, appears to be the main protagonist of the symbolist landscape. Indeed it is hard to see what else connects the works in this show. Symbolism is such a vague term – especially when it is made to stretch all the way from the Victorian visions of GF Watts to Paul Signac's pointillist arcadias – that it may be worth ignoring altogether in Edinburgh. It is self-evident that these landscapes are more than descriptions; that you're not just meant to admire the view.

But while it may be very clear that Léon Bakst's aerial view of an Aegean archipelago struck by lightning while a Greek statue breaks into a sinister grin must have the decline and fall of ancient civilisations in mind, it is less obvious that Spilliaert's art can be understood in terms of colonial politics. German symbolism, for instance, is routinely diagnosed as a reaction to Bismarck's modernised materialist state, but that doesn't begin to explain the immense variety of these German landscapes, from von Stuck's opalescent puddles at dusk to the island graveyards of Böcklin.

There are some real surprises in this exhibition. The reclusive Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, master of the mysterious interior, steps out into the streets of Copenhagen to paint Amalienborg Square in the queerest of filtered brown shadows: out of time. There are passionately beautiful treescapes by Mondrian before he turned to abstraction. August Strindberg's harried surfaces seem to prefigure the art of Anselm Kiefer just as surely as many of the artists in the Silent Cities section get there before Giorgio de Chirico.

And there is a show within a show here, as well – a survey of landscape painting at its wildest. Vertical versus horizontal, near against far, the effects of close-up and cropping, of vantage points high above, or way below, with a disappearing horizon or a double focus or no focus at all; it is a masterclass in radical landscape painting.

These are pictures to send shivers down the spine, and even to fill one with dread, above all in the case of Edvard Munch. In Winter Night, the great shape-maker coins a bat-black tree with its branches out-flung like a cloaked figure before an immense frozen waste as night falls. The tree is as frightening as the dying light: will we get away before darkness overwhelms us?

The Scream counts, I suppose, as a symbolist landscape plus figure. It is also on view in Edinburgh in the form of a hand-coloured woodcut in Edvard Munch: Graphic Works From the Gundersen Collection at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Munch's prints are as articulate as his paintings – sometimes more so – and this show of 50 works goes as deep, in its incisive way, as the superb tribute to the exuberant old miserabilist currently on show at Tate Modern.

The big festival show at the SNGMA, Picasso and Modern British Art, originated at Tate Britain in February. It is more successful in Edinburgh than it was in London. This is not simply because the rooms in Edinburgh, with their natural light and human proportions, are a better place to look at paintings than the subterranean galleries at Millbank, but because this version is so well edited.

The idea is to look at three artists who paid sharp attention to Picasso without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – plus several more who fairly swooned. In London the comparison was often cruel, but some of the weaker painters (the Bloomsburys) have been cut back here and the main trio given much clearer representation. The show becomes a concise evolution of British modernism in which the influence of Picasso now looks more like learning and less like theft.

Picasso himself springs alive in zany photographs and drawings from the collection of the British surrealist Roland Penrose at the SNGMA, and, of course, in many stunning pictures, including the Tate's Three Dancers and his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter in blue moonlight. It is also excellent to see those two Scottish mavericks, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde in the cubist context. Look out for MacBryde's aggressive cucumber and apocalyptic, wild-eyed kipper.


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May 04 2012

Adrian Searle encounters … Luc Tuymans's Allo!

The Guardian art critic journeys deep into the heart of darkness with Tuymans's Gauguin-themed painting, displayed in A Room for London, the boat perched on the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Gallery: cast adrift in A Room for London

When did I last get butt-naked with a painting in the line of duty, I ask myself. There's just the two of us here: me, and a work by Luc Tuymans called, propitiously enough, Allo!

I'm off to bed. We're in my cabin on a boat called the Roi des Belges ("King of the Belgians"). Tuymans is Belgian too. To be honest, this is the only cabin. It's after midnight and the crew – let's call them "room service" – aren't about. The tide's up. Where's my cocoa?

I'm sailing through the night on the Roi de Belges, the riverboat shuddering and creaking on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank. Rain slaps at the windows and the wind howls. The Roi des Belges is named after the boat Joseph Conrad captained on his journey up the Congo river in 1890 – a trip that became the inspiration for his most famous work, Heart of Darkness, which itself inspired Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now. For one colonialist misadventure, read another.

The tub is also A Room for London, a collaboration between Artangel and Living Architecture, working with the artist Fiona Banner. I had been invited on board – following David Byrne, Jeremy Deller, actor Brian Cox (who read Orson Welles's original screenplay of Conrad's story to a live audience here a few weeks ago) and others. Creative types are invited to stay on the boat, to write and to perform, and the public can rent the joint for the night.

This is more nautical-themed hotel suite than boat. But it is shipshape, with high-thread-count bed linen. It isn't the first time I've set sail across the concrete Sargasso of the South Bank either; last time I floundered in a rowing boat on the flooded sculpture court of the Hayward Gallery, courtesy of the Austrian collective Gelitin in the Hayward's 2008 Psycho Buildings show.

Tuymans' painting, like me, is a stowaway. Allo! was painted especially for the Roi des Belges, and the artist has gone on to paint a whole series of related works since this one-off commission. Tuymans's art has frequently returned to the troubled history of Europe. He has painted the gas chamber, Hitler and his sidekicks, the rotten history of Belgium's colonial past and its relationship with Africa – in particular Belgium's role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first post-independence prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1961. Tuymans filled the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 with a cycle of paintings related to this. Belgium officially apologised for its role in Lumumba's assassination a year later.

Invited to think about Heart of Darkness, and in particular a passage in which the monstrous and haunted ivory-trader Mr Kurtz (the Marlon Brando part in Apocalypse Now) speaks with admiration about two paintings he has made, Tuymans took a different tack. He alighted instead on the 1942 movie version of a novel by Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, first published in 1919. Tuymans's painting also involves a bar in Antwerp, a parrot, and the story of Gauguin, retold at several removes.

Instead of Gauguin, who travelled to Polynesia in search of an idealised tropical paradise, Tuymans based his painting on the last scene in the movie version of Maugham's book, which recasts Gauguin as an English painter, Charles Strickland (played by George Sanders), who leaves his family and ends up dying of leprosy in the jungle, where he has covered the walls of his hut with giant paintings before going blind. These, only glimpsed at the end of the film, are filled with images of a Gauguin-like paradise.

Propped against the shutters in my cabin, Tuymans's painting leans among piles of books, which come supplied with the room. I sit and drink with it; dance around the cabin in front of it and get undressed with it. When I'm not scoping out the hotel windows of the Savoy on the far bank of the river with my binoculars, I look at it from the comfort of my bed. This is the life. I have only the painting and the weather to distract me.

Handled with Tuymans's characteristic short stabs and paddled-about marks, the painting, which isn't very big, is an accumulation of touches which creep up to and shrink away from a schematic pencil under-drawing. The more you look, the more variety there is. Approaching his subject, Tuymans keeps a distance, like someone visiting the sick, hovering near the door in case they might catch something.

His paintings have always had a feel of being infected by something – mostly, Tuymans's own sensibilities and lapses of concentration. The smaller his paintings are, the more concentrated the image, reduced to a kind of essence. Getting up really close, my face inches away from the canvas, I sniff the painting in the dark.

It's a fantasy to imagine that this sort of intimacy comes close to the artist's own relationship to the work, even though it is very different from the theatrical encounter with a spotlit painting on a gallery wall, with a gallery attendant present to stop anyone behaving inappropriately. What's appropriate, anyway, in your nightshirt?

I glance at the painting from under the duvet, the boat creaking and groaning in the wind. I give it a sideways look at 4am. I peer at it balefully at dawn and over breakfast. How long can you really look at a painting? And the room itself – cabin, barque or Premier Inn deluxe – is beginning to get to me.

Who knows what the writers invited to stay here spend their hours thinking about? London. Old Mother Thames. Conrad. History. When the shops will open. Jeanette Winterson has stayed, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Sven Lindqvist. Michael Ondaatje is coming later this summer. I dance about the cabin, waving my arse first in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, then the London Eye, then Cleopatra's Needle and finally St Paul's. If anyone were to cross Waterloo Bridge and look up, they'd be horrified. But the few pedestrians around are heads down under their brollies.

I don't quite know what came over me. Speaking to Tuymans before this trip to nowhere, he told me: "Gauguin was a typical stockbroker. He'd fuck anything that moves." Tuymans said his painting is his joke on modernism, dealing with fake ideas of the new, the exotic and the colourful. The title relates to a bar in Antwerp, near the red light district, where the owner keeps a parrot that cries Allo! when anyone comes in for a drink and a bit of tapas. The painting's colours – a coral red, blue, dirty yellows – are based on the parrot, that living bit of exoticism in the Spanish-themed bar.

He morphs this into his own painting, otherwise based entirely on a movie still from the final scene of The Moon and Sixpence, when the Doctor – a man with a heavy German accent who has gone in search of Strickland – discovers his hut and the fantastical paintings it contains. Seconds later, the painter's native wife sets fire to the hut.

Everything emerges from a darkness that is not quite black, except for a ghostly shadow that seems to be Tuymans's own. More a weight or looming coalescence of darkness than a recognisable silhouette, it is a blot on the image. This, Tuymans says, "is probably where Kurtz comes in". Oh that Tuymans, he's such a tease. His art always depends on the power of suggestion. Most art does. If Tuymans says a painting is about some evil little moment, you are briefed and ready to see it, especially at 3am. It's a wonder I didn't jump ship there and then and get the night bus home. If Tuymans is Kurtz, then I'm the one in search of him.

The vegetation, the darkness, the woozy patterning and the odd shapes between the figures in what Tuymans calls the "mock-Gauguin" backdrop he is repainting from the movie still are as important as the naked figures that swoon across it. The Doctor walks in front of this backdrop, turning away from us. The shadows in the folds of his clothing threaten to climb all over him, and the way the light catches the back of his blue suit is as much a thin, slithery sound as it is a mass of flickering contours. The naked women beyond look stark and overlit, bleached out by movie lights. This is moments before the hut goes up in an enormous conflagration, but the whole painting looks on the verge of eclipse.

What's background? What's foreground? Allo! is a painting of a movie still, and also a painting of a painting that was made only to be seen in a movie. And Allo! was made for a room that is also a mock-up of Conrad's riverboat. All this is hard to get your head around in the middle of the night, looking for Kurtz on a South Bank rooftop. Allo! is a weird thing to spend the night with. But then, so am I. The horror! The horror!


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June 11 2011

The 10 best summer paintings

The Observer's art critic Laura Cumming selects the paintings that best evoke the exhilaration and the languor of summer

1 Claude Monet Poppy Field (1873)

This is the summer you look at in winter, reproduced on millions of sitting room walls, the painting that transports you to the drifting, buzzing heat of those waist-high French fields through which pretty women stroll with parasols. The nearest poppies are disproportionately large to get across the impact of such intense red and parts of the painting hover on the verge of abstraction. The mother and child are probably Monet's wife and daughter. He showed the work at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and it's now one of the best-loved paintings in the world. See the painting here

2 Pieter Bruegel The Harvesters (1565)

Towering wheat, plump peasants, comic stooks: you wend your way through this fabulous late summer landscape like a roving peasant yourself, spotting ripe pears, scattering birds, noticing the distant monks bathing naked. The scythed path leads the eye into the faraway distance. The first modern landscape in western art is the claim for Bruegel's Harvesters – all reality, no allegory – from the Seasons cycle. It really puts you on the spot, makes you feel the soporific weight of all that warmth. It is, like the rest of the cycle, democratic, affectionate, atmospheric and almost proverbial. See the painting here

3 Edward Hopper Second Storey Sunlight (1960)

This is the dark side of summer – strange goings-on in broad sunlight, longing and isolation even in the heat. The house is typical Hopper, white clapboard, pitched roof, presenting itself silently against the cobalt sky. Sun strikes the old lady in black and the young girl waiting for someone or something. But between them is a lonely void. What is their relationship? Why is the house turned to the sun as if watching for something too? The trees gather menacingly behind the building and inside looks starkly empty as the sun hits the back wall of the room. See the painting here

4 Christian Kobke Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle (1834)

The marvellous Danish artist Christian Købke has climbed to the rooftops to take the summer view by surprise. Here is the dark ridge, the cool blue water beyond, the landscape repeating these horizontals in ever-hazier stripes beneath a motionless sky that fills three-quarters of the picture. It is a hymn to summer light and immense panoramas, the kind of thing no photograph can quite contain. And it's all witnessed by strange surrogates: a solid brick chimney and an elaborate spire turned gold and silver in the sunlight face the view amazed, like something out of Edward Hopper. See the painting here

5 Isaac Levitan Summer Evening (1899)

It would be hard to think of a more beautiful image of summer evening light turning field to fire than this delicately luminous painting. The parched road begins among the cooling foreground shadows, implicitly where we stand, and stretches across the still-warm field to the trees in the distance. It feels like the cusp of autumn, certainly the end of summer's lease. Levitan was master of the "mood landscape", which catch the understated beauty of provincial Russia with a tinge of melancholy. Close friend and favourite artist of Chekhov, he was dead months later at the age of 39. See the painting here

6 David Cox Rhyl Sands (1854)

A summer's day on the French coast, as painted by Boudin or Monet – that's what this picture looks like. And it never ceases to amaze that the subject is actually a day at the artist's favourite resort on the Welsh coast, that David Cox is English and that the picture was painted around 1855, before impressionism was a glimmer in the eye. The sweep of beach, so fresh and breezy it looks as though the sand might have caught in the paint, stretches away in that blurry miasma of light, air and liquid motion that so perfectly captures a day at the seaside. See the painting here

7 David Hockney A Bigger Splash (1967)

Which other living painter has created such a potent image of high summer, of a day so hot the only escape is to plunge into a cool pool? Hockney's swimmer has vanished into the depths, leaving only scattered water in his wake. It is a stunning diagram of 60s California, of blazing noon and pristine pool, of liquid blossoming into frozen chaos. "It took me two weeks," Hockney wrote, "to paint this event that lasts two seconds." Few works of British art have so completely entered the public imagination. See the painting here

8 Bridget Riley To a Summer's Day (1980)

Sky blue, rose, violet and sunshine yellow: stripes of summer colours twist this way and that, ribbon-like, across the horizontal canvas. The motion is somewhere between wave and shivering cornfield. And each fluctuation produces a slightly different optical hit and temperature. The whole painting vibrates in the mind and eye, which is very much the spirit of Riley's art, echoing the truth that nothing in the seen world ever stays still. Her title alludes to Shakespeare's sonnet, suggesting only a comparison with summer. Her picture presents an analogy with the exhilaration of summer. See the painting here

9 Paul Gauguin Tahitian Landscape (circa 1893)

Everyone knows the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, painting super-fertile scenes of sultry girls, primitive statues and strange fruit. But Gauguin also celebrated the landscape around him with an unrivalled intensity of colour that would inspire the fauves. Here, the path turns red-gold in the heat as it runs between viridian trees towards a mountain of sun-baked rock. Up close, the paint is inert, dry and pressed flat into the canvas. But stand a few inches away and the image bursts with brilliance and graphic power. See the painting above

10 Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin Basket With Wild Strawberries (1761)

Not just a heap of summer fruit, but a whole glowing mountain of pleasure. Chardin's great masterpiece of wild strawberries is full of latent heat, his paint mimicking the warm, soft flesh of the berries as miraculously as it conjures the silvery condensation on the glass of cold water. His brush smooths round and round the peach, round the cellophane-bright cherries, shaping the fruit with circular relish. Chardin loves what he paints and makes you love it too. Diderot called him "the Great Magician". Proust revered him for bringing inanimate objects to life "as in The Sleeping Beauty". See the painting here


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April 07 2011

The disturbing power of the nude

An attack on Gauguin's Two Tahitian Women shows the ancient art of the nude still has the power to provoke

The art of Paul Gauguin is "evil" according to the woman who has attacked his 1899 painting Two Tahitian Women in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Susan Burns pummelled the painting in the Gauguin exhibition that has toured there from Tate Modern. Luckily it was protected by a Plexiglass shield. "I feel that Gauguin is evil," she apparently told police after the incident. "He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosexual."

Attacks on art are always horrible and rarely have any interesting content. Before overreacting to this one, we should note that Burns is also reported to have said she was from the CIA and had a radio in her head. We should also refrain from suggesting that since Two Tahitian Women normally hangs quite happily and unassailed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, this seems like a case of the rest of the US being more uptight than Manhattan. Of course no such glib meanings can be found.

What is interesting is that once again, a great work of art has been singled out by an attacker because of its nudity and eroticism. Gauguin's painting joins the Rokeby Venus in London's National Gallery, slashed by a suffragette in 1914, and Rembrandt's Danaë in the Hermitage, attacked with acid in the 1980s, as powerful examples of the nude in painting that have endured violent assault over the years. Luckily the Gauguin was not damaged as these masterpieces were.

I am fascinated by such disturbing demonstrations of the potency and currency of the nude, a genre of art born in ancient Greece, revived in the Renaissance and still practised currently. If painting is seen by some people today as an outmoded, tame, conservative art, how can a painting of a naked body still enrage to this extent?

I think the painted or sculpted nude's power to shock and offend is proof that high art is still a living force. I would go further. In his famous 1970s television series and book Ways of Seeing, the critic John Berger drew analogies between the painted nude and modern exploitation of women's bodies. But in an age when new media supposedly have painting on the run, that argument works both ways. It is startling that paintings can work on the same level as dirty photographs – that fine art can so provoke and disgust some beholders.

The nude troubles people for a variety of reasons, from religious to political. I have no ideological view about it at all; I see no reason to "defend" it. I just love the fact that we can still be troubled and angered, or seduced, by this ancient art.


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January 16 2011

'Gallery rage' at Gauguin show

Crowds flocked to the artist's first major British exhibition in 50 years, which ends today. But many left disappointed and angered by the scrum around every painting

The crowds were huge, the buzz a testimony to the booming interest in Britain's major art galleries. But was the much-heralded Gauguin exhibition at London's Tate Modern, which closes today, just a bit too successful for its own good?

Gauguin: Maker of Myth has drawn what is thought to be a record number of visitors to a Tate exhibition, but many of them left the building in a state of what one prominent art critic called "gallery rage".

The crowding in front of the paintings on display was so bad, according to angry art fans and critics, that they have vowed never to go to such a big show again. A fraught debate is now expected in the art world over the need for different forms of crowd control for Britain's major art shows.

"It is a magnificent exhibition, but very hard indeed to enjoy," said John Capel, 75, from Edenbridge, Kent, who visited last week. "My wife uses a stick and she rightly decided not to come in when we heard how crowded it was. She would not have lasted two minutes in there."

There were early signs the popularity of the exhibition would stretch capacity when advance box office records were broken and the tickets for several of the allocated time slots sold out before doors opened last autumn. Visitors were warned they might have to queue to get in but, once inside the gallery, many have complained they also had to queue to look at individual pictures.

Parents with baby buggies, groups of schoolchildren, art students and middle-aged art lovers all competed for elbow room as exhibition staff moved crowds on in what some visitors have described as the art world equivalent of "kettling", the police crowd control tactic.

Art critic William Feaver echoed demands for smaller, calmer shows that allow artworks to be enjoyed as intended by the artist.

"You get this sort of gallery rage because people can't just pop in for 10 minutes at a time and look at a few paintings," he said. "If you have come in from out of town or from abroad you have to save it all up for one visit and then you get a headache, and eye strain. The whole thing becomes a pilgrimage that is better relived later, looking at the catalogue at home."

Feaver felt the Gauguin show was "over-extended" in comparison with the "exemplary" Cézanne exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery on the other side of the Thames. "I wish shows could be smaller and crowds more dispersed, but we are caught in a bind because people want their money's worth if they have paid more than £12 for a ticket."

Messages on the Tate internet message board indicate the crowding problem has dogged the show from its first weeks. In early November, Roy Rampling wrote: "Wonderful collection of works and interesting exhibitions. However, the overcrowding meant that it was extremely difficult to appreciate the work, which was a real pity," and later visitor Will McDonnell agreed: "A good exhibition sadly marred by the gross overcrowding. I shuffled along with so many others struggling to see past the backs of so many heads. Tate should consider limiting the numbers and maybe I don't get in, but it would make it a satisfying experience for those who do."

This weekend the gallery defended its handling of visitors and said the final attendance figures gathered tomorrow may confirm the Gauguin as its most popular show ever. "As with all Tate's exhibitions, we allocate tickets with staggered entry times to minimise overcrowding," a spokesman said. "To help meet additional demand, Gauguin: Maker of Myth has remained open until 10pm on Sunday evenings."

The Tate show was the first to celebrate the work of Gauguin in Britain for 50 years and it put together more than 100 of his works, including some from Russia never seen in this country. Critics such as Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times hailed it as "the show of the season – in fact of the whole year" when it opened, while the Guardian's Adrian Searle praised the curators for rescuing Gauguin's reputation "as the amoral, dissolute monster of trashy biopics".

The show included all four of his great religious paintings – Vision of the Sermon, The Yellow Christ, Breton Calvary and Christ in the Garden of Olives – and also displayed a letter from the artist to his wife Mette which revealed he had stayed in touch from Tahiti.

Foreign art lovers who travelled across Europe to the Tate show have also complained. "It was more than overcrowded and sometimes impossible to have a look at certain paintings. A real pity," wrote Evelyn Watzka. Two years ago the head of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, also called for art shows that featured just one or two paintings at a time. More recently Penny clarified his views, saying "I've no problem with popular exhibitions, merely with exhibitions designed primarily to be popular."


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January 07 2011

Gauguin tribute to Van Gogh for sale

Works by Picasso, Matisse and Degas also on offer at blockbuster Christie's art sale

A still life of sunflowers painted by Paul Gauguin as a tribute to his friend Vincent Van Gogh, which has not been seen in public for more than 20 years, will lead one of the blockbuster impressionist art sales in London next month.

Christie's today announced details of its February impressionist and modern art sales which will include works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard. The total pre-sale estimate is between £74m and £109m – the second highest for equivalent Christie's sales in London and a sign that sellers are more confident than a year ago, when the estimate was between £57m and £81m.

Certainly there is a detectable buoyancy in the trophy art market, as evidenced by largely successful sales in New York and London last year that included a record for any artwork bought at auction – the sale in May of Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for £70m.

Christie's head of impressionist and modern art, Giovanna Bertazzoni, called 2010 a landmark year for the art market, with record prices driven by a demand for top quality works.

"The category continues to engage new collectors from both established and emerging markets, including China and Russia," she said. "When there is a healthy supply it has been shown that there is a tremendous demand for the rarest and the best."

Few would quibble about the Gauguin being in that category. Nature Morte à L'Espérance was painted in Tahiti in 1901 – two years before his death from syphilis and 11 years after Van Gogh's suicide – and was shown at Gauguin's first big retrospective in 1906. Although not seen in public since 1989, it has featured in more than 20 major museum exhibitions over the years and has the highest estimate, at £7m to £10m.

The Christie's sale will include four works being sold by the Art Institute of Chicago. It is selling two Picassos, a Matisse portrait and a Braque still life – Nature Morte à la Guitare (Rideaux Rouge) – estimated at between £3.5m and £5.5m.

Other highlights include an Degas ballet painting – Danseuses Jupes Jaunes (Deux Danseuses en Jaune), which has been in the same family since 1899 and is estimated at between £3m and £5m – and a Bonnard summer's day view from his house in Normandy, Terrasse à Vernon, estimated at between £3m and £4m.


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December 20 2010

Gauguin: Maker of Myth

Julian Mills, director of Tahiti Tourisme, thinks Gauguin's paintings capture the intense colour and spiritual essence of the island, despite the seedy depiction of women

There's something seedy about Gauguin's paintings of Tahitian women. Most of them are stark naked, but for their traditional pareo skirts. Even in the late 1890s, when Gauguin was there, many Tahitians would have worn full western dress. And they all look very sad and serious, which doesn't ring true – I've always found Tahitians to be incredibly welcoming and smiley.

Gauguin doesn't really put across the physical beauty of the islands, either. You don't really get a sense of the scenery's scale in his paintings. His use of colour, however, is fantastic – the bright blues and greens are just right. Colour is the first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Tahiti: I remember stopping my car, on my first trip, just to admire the dark green hills.

Flowers are present in several of the paintings – behind a model's ear, or in her hair. That's very accurate: Tahitians are obsessed with flowers, and always give you a "lai", or flower-garland, as soon as you get off the boat. They use them as signals: if you put a flower behind your left ear, above your heart, it means you're attached; behind your right ear, it means you're available.

Gauguin definitely understood "mana" – the Tahitian word for the islands' special spiritual vibe. Today, Tahiti is still an incredibly spiritual place. One island woman who hosts our tourists at her home will take you out into the garden after dinner, lie you down and get you to look up at the stars, and then tell you stories about which gods came from which constellation.

Gauguin's paintings, and this wonderful exhibition, might do a lot to encourage people to visit Tahiti and the rest of Polynesia – there are special Gauguin tours of the Marquesas, where he died. But believe me, if I could bottle that "mana", we'd have people flocking to Tahiti in their thousands.


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October 02 2010

Maker of myth

Tate Modern, London

There is a painting in this momentous exhibition that stops you dead. It shows a large chunk of ham on a salver. An ordinary enough subject, except that a fierce orange wallpaper is blazing behind it, sending out sparks, and a glass of black liquid is skulking beside it. And reflected in that chilly surface is the beginning of a row of pale shallots issuing across the canvas like mysterious speech bubbles.

You look for their source, which is none other than the ham itself, now beginning to resemble a severed head. The picture turns out to be as circular as the salver. What had seemed a seductive still life, as sensuously painted as anything by Manet, becomes its opposite: a living head still arguing with everything around it in this astonishing outburst of a picture.

The Ham feels practically on fire. No reproduction can prepare you for its energy and colour. And the same is true of nearly every work in this show, which spans Gauguin's career from the early days in Paris to Martinique, Brittany, Tahiti, Arles and eventually the Marquesas, where he died of syphilitic heart failure in 1903 at the age of 54.

This is the first full-dress show in Britain for half a century. People who know the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, may never have had a chance to see the paintings at all. And even for those who have, there will be revelations: the portrait of Gauguin's sleeping child from Copenhagen, anxious dreams unfurling in the air around him; the spectral riders approaching a cobalt Styx in Moscow's The Ford (Flight); the self-portrait as a vermilion-haired Christ in the garden of olives, flown in from Palm Beach, Florida. This is Gauguin's pictorial imagination at full stretch, the show of a lifetime.

Now you could view this mass gathering of almost 200 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures as resounding proof of Gauguin as the pioneer modernist, his statuesque Tahitians forefathers to Picasso's early figures, his tendrils and curlicues twining their way through Matisse, his wild and dissonant colours a palette for the fauves. This is the exemplary Gauguin, the conceptual painter who decouples line from description and colour from nature, the sophisticated savage who ferries his art books to the jungle, whose line is so supple, strong and incisive, sometimes soothing, sometimes whipping his earthy forms into shape.

This version of art history, as many of us received it, conveniently bypassed all sorts of embarrassment, from Gauguin's brute behaviour to that of his frequently inscrutable paintings.

But what's so remarkable about this show, as the title declares, is its emphasis on Gauguin as maker of myths, narratives and tall stories, notably his own well-burnished legend. The opening gallery sets the scene, superbly condensing both the life and the art in a sequence of self-portraits. From the young loner in his garret, a conventional archetype in a conventional style; to the prophet unrecognised in Paris, a Tahitian odalisque glowing behind him in the cold studio; right up to the shorn and spectacled invalid staring out of the blue twilight of his days. It is not just that Gauguin changes, it is that art changes too, in his intimidating hatchet of a face.

All the aspects of Gauguin's life that might have been side-stepped are thus examined through the art – the boorishness, drink and grotesque self-pity; the absurd outrage, on arriving in Tahiti, that Christian missionaries had got there before him so that he would have to mock up his own carved idols, smuggling them into the paintings as ancient artefacts.

Here are the carvings, the mythical friezes and the acid caricatures of friends and foes. Here are the thumbnail diagrams of deliberately hazy allegories. Tate Modern even has the carved façade of Maison-du-Jouir, Gauguin's last house in the Marquesas with its lewd, screw-you name intended to affront the local clergy. Above all, this focus on narrative makes one look more keenly at the content of the pictures, which sometimes seems buried beneath the pressure of colour. And this is a crucial opportunity.

For the elements of Gauguin's mystique are apparent enough: a portentousness of pose or motif, a figure catching one's eye with a look of grave interrogation, a woman foursquare and impassive as an oceanic statue. Figures distanced, isolated, backs turned or in profile, squatting, crouching, lying face down or flat on their back, stiff-limbed as dolls. Strange fruit, haunted clearings, statues that appear alive, living people as immobile as statues: and all carefully placed in a time-stopped Eden.

But what is really going on? That raven perched above the Tahitian girl in Nevermore: is it a harbinger, a real bird, a heavy allusion to Edgar Allan Poe? Why is this woman repudiating that woman? What is happening in this silent standoff? The mysteries are sustained in Gauguin's titles, those fragments of Tahitian dialect that materialise on the canvas like overheard speech one can never understand; those ambiguous questions (mortal or rhetorical?): what are we? where are we going?

Writing about the "deliberately sombre" colours of Nevermore, Gauguin observed that "sadness is my key", which will be news to anyone who associates him with chromatic heat and hedonism. But his true intent was never for our simple delight. Against all the optical pleasures of his art runs a tide of darkness and pain; and within that a strain of sardonic humour. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

Gauguin, big drinker, hams it up with a self-portrait in the form of a Toby jug, eyes closed as if dozing. But there are rivulets of blood pouring down his face, as if to say go ahead and drink my blood: everyone else does. And look at The Loss of Virginity, with its naked girl laid flat beneath a crimson landscape, a torn blossom in one hand, fondling a vulpine critter. It has to be a joke, doesn't it, a parody of violation and shame? But perhaps Gauguin is serious – exaggeration in the service of truth.

The tone of his art is so hard to catch. But there is no sense of duplicity here. Rather it feels as if Gauguin, irrepressible, cannot help his perverse and rebellious tendencies. The famous Yellow Christ, with its peasant women worshipping a crucifix outdoors in the Breton fields, sings with pure high notes of colour that may imply grace, or even ecstasy. But then there's that little man, Brueghelesque, legging it over the wall in the background in low pursuit of some ladies.

Despite the heavy perfume of ease and eroticism some associate with Gauguin, these paintings are among the most thoroughly calculated in art. Look at the reproductions of Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cézanne conspicuously inserted into self-portraits and still lifes; look at the overt homage to Hokusai and Degas. Gauguin's instinctual look is sophisticated, hardwon. And that dichotomy is repeated in the canvases themselves. Up close, the paint is pressed flat into the warp and weft: laborious, dry and even crude. But stand a few inches away and somehow these brushstrokes resolve into images of supersmooth power.

This is a stunning show, almost overpoweringly various in idea, theme and medium. But the focus upon narrative gives it, so to speak, a guiding light. Once you have seen Gauguin depicting himself as hero, martyr, even as Christ betrayed, you begin to see that his art is a continuum, a proliferating mythology in which all people and places are equal. Bible stories may be transposed to Brittany or Polynesia, Tahitian girls can double as goddesses or water sprites so that life's experience may be expressed as timeless, primitive, essential. For Gauguin the myth-maker, all stories are true.


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October 01 2010

Into the mystic

Gauguin is celebrated for his astounding colour and ravishing design. But his work is also full of mysteries – idols, angels, spirits of the dead. By Alan Hollinghurst

What a surprise this fresh-faced young man is, meeting you just inside the door with his level blue gaze and his pink complexion and his air of successfully balancing business and pleasure. You wonder for a minute if it can really be Gauguin, "the savage from Peru" whose image is synonymous with rebellion, escape, repudiation of all social and artistic norms. He wears the fashionable black fez of an art-lover, but with smart wing collar, black tie and suit. There's a hint of truculence, perhaps, about the mouth, though the eyes invite you to overlook it. Almost under his chin are the little blond stubs of a beard, but he lacks a moustache, the feature that, with the hooded eyes and long, hooked nose, was to define the icon of the mature Gauguin. This is a cultured, successful stockbroker in his late 20s, and you find yourself mentally turning the face of the Sunday painter to the future and to everything still only latent within it.

That turning away is part of Gauguin's challenge. Rarely will he look us in the eye like that again. Thereafter, he angles his head (showing off that "Inca" nose) and views us askance, as people who would be lucky to get to know him. Wary, touchy, proud, sometimes slightly absurd, he becomes a wonderful subject for himself. Nine years later, embarking on the career that looks like worrying lunacy to his family, he's pointedly wrapped in a thick overcoat, with palette beside him and the sloping timbers of a garret ceiling above. Eight years after that, at the end of his first stay in Tahiti, he poses in striped Breton jersey and polka-dot bow tie with a Polynesian idol looking on: a cultural eclectic with hand on chin as if to say, "What do you make of that?" Back in France a few months later, he has his traveller's hat on and the slope of the ceiling has turned to gold – a bar of the intense yellow Gauguin loved; hanging behind him, in reverse, is the major work of those travels, the disturbing Manao tupapau, in which a naked teenage girl lies face down on a bed, watched over by the black-swathed Spirit of the Dead. In all these self-images, the invitation to admire the artist is hedged with defiance – the boast about Manao tupapau is part artistic, part sexual braggadocio about the kind of teenage "bride" available to the exotic traveller he had become. In Christ in the Garden of Olives he takes it dangerously far, appearing as a scarlet-haired Jesus, brightly lit against a dark background in which shadowy figures are glimpsed approaching. Throughout there is an unavoidable sense that a good deal of Gauguin's self-projection was, precisely, a pose, yet one that confounds our sense of the poseur by the repeated production of works of genius.

In Manao tupapau we understand that the crude black idol at the foot of the bed, very evident to us, may nonetheless be simply a projection of the sleepless girl's terror – her head on the pillow is turned away from it, towards us, and her eyes convey an incalculable blend of passivity, accusation and fear. It's a large bed she lies on, on the very edge, with space beyond her where someone else has lain, and will do so again. If the magnetic oscillation in the painting of her body, between the eyes and the pink highlight of the cleft of her buttocks, is uneasily pornographic, Gauguin was understandably at pains to emphasise the strong but ambiguous air of the metaphysical that permeates the picture. In the mauve night beyond the bed, indecipherable forms and phosphorescences seem hints of both natural and supernatural worlds. The power of the painting lies in part in its confusing but irreducible mixture of motives.

Gauguin – whose affinities with the symbolists were deep – had already explored a simultaneous depiction of the real and the imaginary in The Vision After the Sermon, painted four years earlier in Brittany, where the praying peasant women and Jacob wrestling with the Angel are shown together, the broad diagonal of a tree trunk dividing the two arenas of experience. It is a spectacle that all but one of the women observe with their eyes closed. Clearly a large rich history of the depiction of saints' visions in western art lies behind the painting, but Gauguin has wrenched it into a new configuration by his stylised flatness of treatment, boldness of design and the astounding vermilion field against which the vision is seen. Though he repudiated Christianity, Gauguin's eye for visionary experience was that of a mystic as much as of an anthropologist of "primitive" beliefs.

He had also made more intimate and domestic approaches to the threshold of dreams, in haunting pictures of two of his children asleep. In The Little One is Dreaming his daughter Aline lies turned away from us, upper body huddled in nightclothes, legs out in the cold, while above the black dado rail behind the bed, dark leaves and birds swoop in the green, as though the wallpaper had come to life. The pointy-capped jester of a doll by the bedhead is less frightening than the Spirit of the Dead, but nonetheless vaguely malign – the clownish plaything that is also the impresario of her dreams or nightmares.

There's a doll, too, in the picture of his son, Clovis Gauguin Asleep, the face blurred as if by sleep, the blue vertical brushstrokes of the wall beyond ridden over by whirling forms of creatures or flowers. Clovis's hand stretches out, as if for reassurance, to a huge carved tankard. This – 18th-century, Norwegian – is displayed close by in the new exhibition at Tate Modern, giving the viewer, too, a vaguely uncanny sense of being within reach of the dream.

Dream isn't always the right word to convey the mysteries and disjunctions in a Gauguin painting, in which there's frequently something unexpected going on. The pleasant many-coloured apples in one still life sit on a white cloth beside the more troubling organic form of one of his own brown ceramics, the ensemble surveyed at close range by the bespectacled profile of his friend Charles Laval, so that one genre seems to have invaded another, the result being a sort of oblique conversation between the two artists. (It was with Laval that Gauguin was shortly to make the visit to Panama and Martinique that would be a turning point in his art.) In the busier Still Life with Fruit three years later, the spread of fruit is inspected at even closer range by the apple-green face of a hungry and impatient child. And in the captivatingly eccentric Still Life with Three Puppies, in a steeply sloping picture-plane, the puppies at the top, puce and tan and grey, lap milk from a pan, while in front of them on the patterned tablecloth three blue wine glasses stand, with a plum placed by the foot of each one, and in the foreground a round bowl and platter of pears complete the composition. The pears and puppies show the fondness for cusped forms that recurs in Gauguin – leaves, distant trees, clogs, animals' tails, leaf and fruit patterns on fabric – and a mysteriously calculated still life (the glasses and plums prepared for a formal dessert perhaps) is offset by the very wriggly life of the guzzling dogs.

The ravishing nonchalance of design, like a fore-echo of Matisse, is seen, too, in Gauguin's powerful Te Faaturuma (the brooding woman), one of the most refined of his earlier Tahitian paintings, where the natural temptation to tropical exuberance of detail and palette is curbed into something more austere. The cross-legged young woman is like many others Gauguin painted in Tahiti and the Marquesas, but here invested with a peculiar heaviness and sombreness of mood, chin on hand, staring at the simple still life of round forms in front of her (straw hat, bowl with burning incense, delectable swirls of fruit) with none of our appreciation for how perfectly they're painted. The floor of the room is an uninflected plane of pale orange. And beyond the open porch, where a black dog like a hieroglyph is sitting, a small green glimpse of forest floor, and a man on horseback, waiting. Who he is, and whether he is indeed there, goes, of course, unexplained.

Such figures on horseback, men in mysterious freedom of agency and movement, recur in the background of Gauguin's Polynesian pictures, the miniature landscapes glimpsed beyond the torpid and often melancholy world of the women. He wasn't uninterested in the Polynesian male as a subject (it's a shame perhaps that the Tate show has none of his pictures of the man called Jotefa, a young woodcutter with whom he describes a mystically sensuous experience in his book Noa Noa). But it is clear even in his earliest tropical paintings, from Martinique in 1886, that what entranced Gauguin was the inscrutable va-et-vient of the women's day, figures laughing and conversing in a language he could barely understand, the further language of gesture and glance taking on a heightened significance. (At the Tate there's a room devoted to Gauguin's Tahitian titles, and their often bafflingly enigmatic nature, as if he wished to show us, too, what outsiders we are, and how thoroughly conversant he has now himself become.)

Eu haere ia oe ("Where Are You Going?") – the title of two paintings – is not the subtlest of questions (it reminds you of the vast symbolic canvas Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going? – not in the Tate show), but Gauguin encourages us to imagine two quite different answers to it. In the brighter picture, the question is put by two seated women to another woman carefully carrying a large green papaya as she passes them; in the background a woman with a child on her hip perhaps implies a similar destiny. But in the darker, heavier and closer-cropped painting, the passing woman awkwardly clutches a black wolf-cub against her red skirt. The typology of these figures, and their real-life sources, have been explored by scholars and biographers, but the essence of the paintings surely lies beyond narrative, in the fact of the question, the invitation to conjecture.

In his later life Gauguin seems to have felt less inclination, or need, for the self-questioning and self-assertion of the self-portrait. But he looks us straight in the eye again in the last self-portrait he ever did, in the Marquesas, in 1903, a spare sketch of a painting abnormally subdued in colour: blue-grey background, white (in fact cream and beige) hospital smock, blue eyes sombre behind spectacles, the face dark brown. If the liberation of colour was one of Gauguin's most exhilarating attainments, here he seems almost to abjure it. His skin is not the yellow or golden brown of the islanders he's painted since his arrival in Tahiti 12 years earlier, nor is it the ruddy tan of a northerner gone native; it's the strange earthenware brown of a Fayum funerary portrait, and it adds incalculably to the image of unadorned stoicism, a man stripped of all accoutrements, confronting the viewer as he confronts death.

Gauguin is at Tate Modern until 16 January 2011.


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September 27 2010

Gauguin: guilty as charged

Colonialist, chauvinist, exploiter . . . Gauguin may have been all these things and more – but, as the Tate's brilliant new show reveals, his faults are what make him great

Gauguin, both man of the world and self-professed savage, is difficult. Many of his contemporaries were wary of him (his nine weeks lodging with Van Gogh had Vincent running from the house) and he remains a problematic artist. Yet it is these problems that make Gauguin great – and Tate Modern's new show confronts them head on. Gauguin: Maker of Myth rescues the artist from his reputation as the amoral, dissolute monster of trashy biopics, and gives us instead a Gauguin for our time.

The Gauguin myth, of course, also accounts for his popularity. It's the Tahitian women, the dusky flesh, the foetid jungle, the yearnings for lost paradise and innocence, the animism and the return to nature that have put posters of his work in a million bedrooms. Not to mention the syphilis, the abandonment of his family, the brawling and insufferable self-aggrandisement, or his taking, in middle age, barely adult Polynesian lovers.

Gauguin's sense of himself as an artist was multiple and various. His art is a hodge-podge of inconsistent and seemingly incompatible styles and manners, half-digested and invented myth, symbols, stories and allusions. He personifies the idea that the artist is as much an invention as the art itself. Beginning with portraits, this exhibition shows us that his self-invention was of a piece with his painting and sculpture. Here he is, bullish, guarded, saintly, pensive, dying. Conscious of his striking looks, he paints himself as hero of his own life (once, he portrayed himself as the protagonist in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables); he depicted himself as Christ and sculpted himself as the decapitated John the Baptist. The severed head, with a ruby red glaze of blood about its neck, is in the form of a stoneware jug. What, we ask, would we use it for: a chalice or a gravy boat?

In his self-portraits, Gauguin flips from naturalism to caricature, and then in his last year, about to be imprisoned for non-payment of taxes, as an ordinary man. Soon to die of a heart attack (he had several), he looks out grimly, in glasses, stripped of style and pose. With its direct and inexpressive plainness, the 1903 portrait reminds me of Egypto-Roman funerary portraiture, and of Luc Tuymans's portraits, derived from hospital photographs, of querulous men with hidden diseases.

Touching portraits of the artist's sleeping children are followed by two strange pictures. In the first, a young girl peers over a table-top set with Cézanne-like fruit. In the second, the painter's friend Charles Laval peers at another table set with fruit. We look at them looking, and we look at the fruit, too, as if the squint-eyed girl, Laval and ourselves might each find the answer to some mystery there. Then comes a weird painting of puppies drinking milk from a saucepan among cups and pears, a hovering overhead view that looks like it might have been painted by Francis Picabia or Matisse.

Gauguin's work is full of possibilities. Like Kandinsky, he spawned some truly awful art, but also provided inspiration to Picasso, for Demoiselles d'Avignon and the heavy-shouldered, big-footed nudes of the early 1920s. He is there, like Zelig, walking beside expressionism and neo-expressionism, various tides of fanciful romantic figuration and colourful abstraction. He returns again in the work of Peter Doig and Chris Ofili (both now living in Trinidad, having distanced themselves from London, as Gauguin did from Paris). Gauguin has been both championed and reviled by art history, by feminism and critiques of colonialism. He's guilty as charged. The criticism has been a necessary corrective to the unsustainable myth of the artist as protean genius beyond the mores of time, place and society.

The quality of Gauguin's art that is "off" and strange – even a bit mismanaged – is also its strength. It gives us the peculiar atmospheres, the unearthly light over the Breton landscape, the static silences and frozen gestures, the strangeness and sadness, the melancholy and yearnings in his art. It is there in a ham and a few shallots on a plate in a window; in the corpse-like supine girl in a Breton field, a fox held in her arm, a wedding party approaching across the fields; in the lowering haystacks under a sky brightened by light from the ocean; in all those young women thinking unknowable thoughts on beds and couches.

We don't look to Gauguin for psychological portraiture, but it is there nonetheless. Gauguin is great at interiority, at painting a woman in the act of thinking. His 1892 Te Faaturuma (Boudeuse/Brooding Woman) shows exactly this. She's cross-legged on the floor, its emptiness sweeping around her, the dog yawning in the background; the image is one of endless waiting and regret. The simpler Gauguin's paintings are, the better they seem. And then there are the strange idols, shifty presences passing behind a vase of flowers, half-hidden in gloom or watching over someone unawares.

Gauguin never gives us the whole story, probably because there isn't one. He harks back to a culture that was already destroyed by missionaries and disease long before he arrived on Tahiti. He moves Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt to a Polynesian island, and the Calvary and crucifixion to Celtic Brittany. They are the possibilities of stories, rather than illustrations, allegories or history paintings. Their content is as mysterious as their colour. He is almost a magic realist before the fact.

Cheap air travel and globalisation mean that artists can now live pretty much anywhere. You just need dealers in London or New York, the internet and good shipping deals. Gauguin spent months aboard steamers (but never painted or much recounted the tedium of his journeys), wrote long-delayed letters home, lived as much in poverty and semi-obscurity as in the limelight. He planned a triumphal return to Europe from his first trip to Tahiti, but walked off the boat with just four francs in his pocket. He made a good story out of a life that was, in many respects, terrible.

As Belinda Thomson makes clear in her excellent Tate catalogue essay, in looking at his work, what we have to overcome, first of all, is the embarrassment of Gauguin's life and personality. Self-promotion and self-invention are inextricable from the art itself. Thomson shows us an artist, both outsider and careerist, who is a little bit dodgy in a way that anyone acquainted with today's art world would recognise.

'You paint too fast!'

Gauguin was the subject of several biographies, two operas and various fictionalised accounts of his life, never mind movies like 1956's Lust for Life ("You paint too fast!" Anthony Quinn's Gauguin tells Kirk Douglas's Vincent. "You look too fast," Vincent replies) and the wonderful 1961 Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel. Lurking always is the idea that Gauguin was not just a self-invented figure, but a kind of imposter, uncomfortable in his own skin, running towards an idea of an untainted world, but also running away from career and personal difficulties.

All this loads Gauguin with even greater biographical baggage and contradiction than he encumbered himself with. Going first to Martinique (via Panama, where he briefly worked on the construction of the canal) and then to Tahiti, Gauguin wanted to escape the killing fields of the Paris art world, his family problems, the problem of being himself. One-time seminarist, navy man, stockbroker, art collector and Sunday painter, travelling salesman, bill-poster, ceramicist, labourer, journalist and editor, Gauguin also had an eye for posterity. This brilliant exhibition gives us a Gauguin who could neither escape himself and his own myths – nor those that would emerge after his death.


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Our love for Van Gogh costs Paul Gauguin dear

Could the reason the artist remains in the shadow of Vincent be all down to Anthony Quinn's portrayal in Lust for Life?

In an episode of Doctor Who, written by Richard Curtis and shown earlier this year, the Doctor meets none other than Vincent van Gogh. It's one of the best new Who adventures, and definitely the best encounter with a character from history, because it asks the question: what would it have meant to the outcast and unnoticed genius if he knew how much his art would be revered after his death?

The episode begins and ends at a Van Gogh exhibition in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. An art historian, played by Bill Nighy, is eloquently championing his favourite painter to a rapt audience. A mysterious face in a painting leads to a meeting with the real Vincent, portrayed very sensitively as both tortured and heroic, and mad and sane. By the end of the episode the artist is brought in the Tardis to the Musée d'Orsay and sees, with wonder and gratitude, how much his art will mean to generations yet to come. He even hears Nighy's passionate claim that Van Gogh is, simply, the greatest artist of all time.

It's a lovely idea. When we love this man's paintings we want him to somehow receive the love; to know we care. It is also a new twist on the many, many screen versions of Van Gogh's life and the endless fascination we have for this artist.

One character is missing from the episode: Paul Gauguin. Although we see an immaculate reconstruction of Vincent's bedroom in the Yellow House at Arles – based on the famous painting of it – we don't see the leading artist of the day whom he begged, successfully, to come and live there as putative leader of the artists' colony the Studio of the South.

Poor Gauguin. It's not so long since he was accused of cutting off Van Gogh's ear with his fencing sword - a nonsensical claim that can be dismissed by any reader of Van Gogh's accounts of his self-harm. Now here he is, written out of history, effaced from time, by the makers of Doctor Who.

One reason for not recreating him in Doctor Who may have been that Anthony Quinn made a defining portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life, as a coarse bully, a man who has no real sympathy for Vincent's soul searching. I think Gauguin is a great artist. I find his paintings utterly arresting. I also find his memoir, Noa Noa, a work of literature by an artist that deserves to be much more widely read. In short: I am a fan, and I will be making several visits to the Tate Modern show – yet I can't picture him as a character without seeing Anthony Quinn bullying a befuddled Kirk Douglas.

Our images of artists are not just shaped by their works of art, but also by the stories we tell about them. The narrative of Gauguin's life might make a Joseph Conrad novel, encompassing the global and imperial sprawl of 19th-century life, in which a corrupt yet brilliant man journeys to Paris, to provincial France and to the Pacific. In his final incarnation, living in the remote Marquesas, he is at once a product of an empire and a champion of its victims. Gauguin's paintings of the Pacific attempt to document a culture and its destruction: their melancholy modernity is eerily resonant with our time.

He deserves all the rediscoveries going, and the Tate Modern exhibition will undoubtedly be a feast. But the real test of its success will be if, one day, Doctor Who visits 19th-century Tahiti and meets a darkly serious, subtly compassionate painter. Until we can imagine such a fiction, Paul Gauguin will remain an artist more admired than loved.


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September 25 2010

Gauguin at Tate Modern

Tim Adams sneaks a look behind the scenes as Tate Modern hangs its huge Gauguin show, bringing together works from all over the world

Paul Gauguin could lay claim to being a truly global artist – partly raised in Peru, itinerant in Europe, sending home canvases from the South Seas and beyond – so there seems something appropriate about standing in a gallery filled with packing cases and crates that have brought his paintings from the world's four corners.

The crates had started arriving at Tate Modern from Moscow and Taipei and Los Angeles at the beginning of last week. When I visited on Tuesday afternoon, it had the feeling of a gathering of the clans, or a highly charged This Is Your Life: portraits of Gauguin's family, his five children, are emerging from their long journeys in one room, still half asleep; his idealised Tahitian lovers, unclothed, stare frankly at one another in the next. Boxed here is his Yellow Christ, representative of a compulsive spiritual journey; over there, still under wraps, the extraordinary demon statue Oviri that Gauguin made as his dreams, for Polynesia and for sculpture, went bad. In one corner, propped against the wall on a couple of polystyrene bricks, a self-portrait of the artist, aged 38, and just in from Washington DC, appears to look on with a sense of amused fascination at the prospect of this overdue retrospective, the first in Britain for 55 years.

In the middle of these priceless "this way up", "handle with care" packages, making careful sense of them all, are the exhibition's curators, Belinda Thomson and Christine Riding. They have had this week in their minds for three years, since the idea of a Gauguin show was first determined – Thomson based in Edinburgh, envisaging the show's narrative, Gauguin as teller of tales, maker of myths; Riding at the Tate in London acting on wish lists, tracking down paintings, determining (with a little help from followers of her blog) the colour of the gallery walls. Seeing it unfold around them looks like Christmas and birthdays in one go.

What they are faced with this afternoon is the ultimate interiors challenge: does that really go there next to this? They are at that moment, Riding tells me, "where your head comes up from the research, and suddenly it's you and these marvellous objects". Curators can make all the storyboards and computer layouts in the world but "there is nothing like standing in a room with 10 pictures on the floor and 20 handlers asking 'what are you doing with these, then?'" Riding is half-dreading the moment of the Unexpectedly Overpowering Frame. Having worked mainly from reproductions of the stand-alone images, there are always one or two "startlingly magnificent" gilded surrounds, that, when unboxed, demand the centre of a wall, not a turn.

Thomson walks me through the understanding of Gauguin's life that she has acquired by devoting much of her own to looking at the paintings that are now clustered around her. Her relationship with the painter has inevitably changed in the past three years, she suggests, though the thing about Gauguin – the ultimate midlife crisis painter, the stockbroker and family man who went in search of lost Edens – is that "there is always so much more to know". Her own fascination is with his intense sense of self-conscious projection, his fashioning of marketable image. She is excited too, though, of course, by the sudden flash of orange on the corner of a painting made in Brittany that prefigures his gorgeous, haunted Tahitian palette, or by the insistent presence, on a table, of Gauguin's own beer mug, a sturdy Scandinavian vessel that looks like it holds three pints, and which features in a curious and estranging portrait of his sleeping daughter. The painter's walking stick and his clogs are yet to be unpacked.

The standard for recent "blockbuster" art shows was set by the Royal Academy's force field of a Van Gogh at the beginning of the year. Though Gauguin needs no help as a subject, this exhibition will reflect some of that light and heat, not only through the painters' shared traumas in Arles, but also because, like Van Gogh, Gauguin was an obsessive analyst of his own creation. At the heart of this show is an extensive collection of illuminated letters and source material – mad travel posters from the French colonies, strange ethnographic photo studies, that are currently being sorted like the contents of an imperial lumber room.

How I wonder, does the Tate judge the success of something on this scale? Through record-breaking crowds, or critical acclaim, or sales of postcards (and knit-yourself Gauguin puppies) in the gallery shop?

Riding suggests a couple of ways. "People will no doubt come in thinking: 'Gauguin – he's the bloke that went to Tahiti,'" she says. "We want them to go away thinking maybe 'I had no idea that he also made that wonderful work in Brittany, or that he kept a startling journal, or created those amazing ceramics.'" Other than that, "It's all about generating genuine excitement." I predict plenty.


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May 14 2010

Royal Academy to exhibit Hungary's art treasures

Masterpieces that have never been loaned before to go on show in London this autumn

Masterpieces from one of central Europe's finest state collections – many of which have never before been on loan – are to fill a rather large hole in the Royal Academy's autumn schedule, it was announced yesterday. The works being lent by Hungary's Museum of Fine Arts and its National Gallery represent a who's who of art history.

The dazzling list of artists includes Claude, El Greco, Gauguin, Goya, Leonardo, Manet, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Schiele and Veronese.

Details of the Treasures From Budapest show were revealed in London yesterday, five months after the Prince of Liechtenstein abruptly cancelled the planned RA autumn show because of a row with customs and excise. The academy's director of exhibitions, Kathleen Soriano, admitted she had been forced to bring forward plans for the Budapest show but said she believed audiences would be surprised and delighted by its unprecedented scale.

David Ekserdjian, one of the show's curators, said he and his colleagues had been like children in a sweet shop when they were selecting the works.

"It was a very collaborative process," he said. "What was quite amazing, having had slightly similar experiences in the past, was that when one said: 'Could I have one of those?' – and it might be a Leonardo drawing – the response was: 'Why don't you have two.' "

One Leonardo drawing in the show, Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari, was described by Ekserdjian as "one of the most important and spectacularly impressive Leonardo drawings in the world".

Curators say there will be a good mix of genres including religious, portraits, landscapes, impressionists and expressionists as well as strong representation from Hungarian artists such as Jacob Bogdani who, in his day, was extremely popular in England. His Still Life with Fruits, Parrots and White Cockatoo (c 1700-1724) features exotic birds he painted in an aviary owned by the Duke of Marlborough at Windsor.

The last ever portrait of Liszt, by Mihály Munkácsy, will also form part of the show ahead of the bicentennial of the composer's birth next year.

Other highlights include an evocative Goya painting of a female water carrier which for a long time was classed simply as a peasant genre painting but has, in fact, a far more important place in Spanish history. It was painted between 1808-1812, around the time of Napoleon's siege of Zaragoza, and represents sustenance for Spaniards fighting for their independence.

There will also be works that were once owned by the British. For example Cornelis van Poelenburgh's portrait of the children of the Elector Palatine Frederick V – known as the "winter king" – was owned by Charles I and has his crowned monogram on the reverse of the panel.

The show's opening work will be dramatic and monumental – the 4 metre high St Andrew Altarpiece, made in about 1512, which shows the outstanding levels of skill and sophistication in early Hungarian wood carving.

And the exhibition may finish with a rather racy Egon Schiele called Two Women Embracing. "It is a highly emotive and erotically charged drawing and a very powerful image," said co-curator Joanna Norman.

The autumn hole in the schedule was caused by the cancellation of a show of works owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein. It would have been one of the exhibitions of the year, with works by Rubens and Van Dyke, but it was pulled because the prince was upset that a Coello painting he bought three years ago was impounded by UK customs and excise.

The Budapest exhibition is not entirely without purpose from Hungary's perspective. The country takes up the EU presidency in 2011 and this show forms part of that drum-banging.

Hungary's state collection of international art was begun in the 17th century and expanded dramatically during the rule of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy in the late 18th century.

Under communism, few westerners would have had any sort of access and even reproductions were rare, so many of the works on show will be new to British eyes.

Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele at the RA, 25 September-12 December


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April 19 2010

Paul Gauguin exhibition reveals artist as self-publicist and truth manipulator

Tate Modern to shed new light on sensual and sensationalist painter in UK's first major Paul Gauguin exhibition in 50 years

He was a fabulist and shameless manipulator of the truth as well as a canny self-publicist, the sort of self-conscious user of shock tactics we might associate with a modern generation of artists.

That is the Paul Gauguin who will be revealed to visitors to Tate Modern this autumn, as the museum mounts the first major exhibition devoted to him in the UK for 50 years. A third of the more than 100 works in the show will be seen in London for the first time when the exhibition opens in September.

His most famous works are, of course, his sensual, prelapsarian visions of Tahiti. The curators will show how his Tahiti paintings weave their own kind of mythology, sometimes rather sensationally referring to "primitive" Oceanian manners and morals that were, by the 1890s, distant memories or indeed simply fantasy.

For instance, his beautiful semi-naked young women proffering platters of fruit were, argue the curators, largely a product of Gauguin's imagination. By the 1890s, Tahiti, a French colony, had been comprehensively worked over by missionaries.

"They were wearing smocks and going to church on Sundays," says Belinda Thomson, curator of the exhibition. She called his relationships with his Tahitian models-mistresses "fairly exploitative". They were not, she says "equal relationships, nor could you call them properly professional relationships".

In Parahi te Marae (1892), a landscape in which a glowering idol looms over a yellow field circled with elaborate fencing (its form gleaned not from observation on the ground, but rather from looking at objects in Parisian museums), Gauguin hints at cannibalistic ritual ‑ a feature of Tahiti's very distant past. "He is reinventing the scene, playing on his audience's prejudices," says Thomson.

In his book about Tahiti, Noa Noa, Gauguin claimed to have been told ancient myths and legends about the island's past by his Tahitian lover, Teha'amana. In fact he read them in the 1837 book Voyages aux Iles du Grand Océan, by JA Moerenhout.

In his fascination with the "primitive" Gauguin was nothing out of the ordinary in 19th-century Europe. But in his employment of shock tactics ‑ his deliberate sensationalising of Tahitian life ‑ says Thomson, "he was ahead of the game".

If the Tahitian pictures are among his most recognisable works, the exhibition, Gauguin: Maker of Myth, will also examine his output beyond this colourful period in his artistic life.

Four paintings made in the late 1880s in Brittany will be brought together for the first time. These works ‑ Yellow Christ, Green Christ, Self-portrait as Christ in the Garden of Olives and Vision of the Sermon ‑ see the painter, in an earlier period, already in the business of drawing on myth, fable and a large dose of his own prejudices about the Breton people to create works with an intriguing narrative content.

In his La Perte de Pucelage ‑ or "loss of virginity" ‑ he layered motifs, allusions and symbols to hint at a kind of narrative. A woman lies in the foreground, naked, with a fox. In the background is seen a Breton wedding procession. "On the one hand it is a kind of Breton version of Manet's famous painting Olympia," says Thomson. "On the other there is a layering of symbolism and elements of Breton folklore, with the fox as the malign seducer."

According to Thomson, "he played up certain aspects of Breton life: a superstitious intensity of faith, for instance". Co-curator Christine Riding says: "He paints them in a decorative and childlike way. You certainly don't get a sense of the harshness of Breton life." Yellow Christ, for instance, shows Jesus crucified in a Brittany landscape; beneath the cross kneel three praying women dressed in traditional Breton headdresses.

Gauguin was also an adept self-mythologiser: the Self-portrait as Christ in the Garden of Olives sees him paint himself as if Jesus before the crucifixion: isolated, betrayed. According to Thomson, "it is the ultimate bombastic or overblown statement of the artist as creator". Riding says: "He was an arch-manipulator of his own artistic identity and wove elaborate myths around himself."

Gauguin had been a stockbroker and what Riding called "a Sunday painter" before taking up art full-time after an economic downturn in the early 1880s, as a result of the collapse of a French bank. He was largely self-taught, using the art he had collected when a stockbroker, including Pissarros and Cézannes, as a study aid.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at Tate Modern, London, from 30 September until 16 January 2011

Life and times

June 1848 Born in Paris, son of a political journalist and grandson of writer Flora Tristan, pioneer of modern feminism

1849-54 The family lives in Peru

1865 Enlists in merchant navy and later the French navy

1872 Becomes a stockbroker

1873 Marries Mette Gad. Becomes a regular weekend painter

1878 Begins collecting contemporary art

1879 Invited to exhibit at the fourth Impressionist exhibition

1882 Pursues painting full-time

1886 Visits Brittany

1888 Lives with Van Gogh in Arles, an experiment that ends with Van Gogh severing his own ear

1891-93 Lives in Tahiti

1895 Diagnosed with syphilis. Departs again for Tahiti

1903 Dies


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November 24 2009

How 20th-century art shed its inhibitions

Matisse, Picasso and the perfume of hedonism surrounding Montmartre finally opened up sex in art from the furtive, neurotic business of the previous century

Something happened to artists at the dawn of the 20th century. They started to have sex. If you look at a nude by Matisse, and the painting in my head is his Blue Nude (Souvinir de Biskra) (1907), and compare it with a late Victorian painting such as JW Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), one of the things that strikes you is surely how much healthier, abundant, and fulfilled Matisse is, sexually. His Blue Nude is a fully, confidently carnal painting. By contrast, the Waterhouse is a perverse fantasy, a lubricious idyll, neurotic, bizarre, solitary.

There's no way around it: many 19th-century paintings reek of masturbation. They are not lacking in sensuality, but it is of a deferred, fantastical, almost proudly warped kind, typified by Waterhouse. It's only among the avant garde that love becomes real - in Gauguin's painting Nevermore, for instance.

One liberating influence on the avant garde in the years leading up to 1900 was the novelist Émile Zola. A school friend of Cézanne who moved in impressionist circles in Paris, this rawly realistic novelist was above all famous in his time for the sexual frankness of his fictions. In his art novel, The Masterpiece, sex in the studio is pretty much taken for granted. And in the 1880s and 90s, artists settled in Montmartre where studio and brothel, models and prostitutes were apparently on a continuum.

The new, rampant hedonism that developed in Montmartre in the years preceding 1900 finally blossoms in the Blue Nude. It is what makes Matisse and Picasso the artists they are. And the inspirations.


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