Paradise and Modernism: Gauguin at the National Gallery

courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Paul Gauguin fills part of two floors of the East Wing of the National Gallery with some spectacular works that changed the form and focus of art (“Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” at the National Gallery through June 5). Gauguin’s color greatly influenced the 20th century. Gauguin could use color in an almost empirical way, and it was unlike anything in earlier European art. He was also a born illustrator, and when he joined those talents to his quest for a paradise unfettered by modern civilization, his work broke into a powerful dreamscape, showcased in paintings such as “The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch.”

It was Gauguin’s appreciation of Tahitian art, whose influence he incorporated into his own work, which led directly to Picasso’s appreciation of African art. Accordingly, Picasso had something of a revelation when he saw Gauguin’s phallic sculpture that was meant for his tombstone. That would jump directly into Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” It would also lead in turn to the art of Brancusi, as well as Modigliani’s marvelous sculpture. The paintings exhibited in Gauguin’s work, with its sparing use of paint and illustrative mode, brings into question whether this master did not also influence Picasso’s blue and rose period.

Born in Paris, Gauguin came from a complex parentage, with his mother being partly Peruvian as well as the daughter of an early feminist. Gauguin’s early childhood was spent partly in Peru, which would undoubtedly influence his quest for a pre-European idyll only fulfilled in his last years when he lived in Tahiti. Gauguin was not a paradigm of the good or kind artist. He abandoned his family in Copenhagen along with his job as a stockbroker in order to paint. The modern sleuthing of recent scholars also suggests that Gauguin, an expert fencer, may well have sliced off van Gogh’s ear.

Earlier than van Gogh, in 1919 Gauguin entered the mythology of literature with Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence.” It later became a movie starring George Sanders. In most of Gauguin’s self-portraits he portrays himself as an earnest, almost ordinary looking man, with the exception of the incredible specimen from the Chester Dale collection in the National Gallery. This very arch and slightly demonic self-portrait is an indelible image that disturbs with its magnetic color and through the use of a snake as a kind of cigarette. Over Gauguin’s own head he painted a halo. Two dangling apples imply a male Eve, and perhaps he is being true to his grandmother, taking original sin onto man.

Another arresting portrait is of Jacob Meyer de Haan, sliced as it is by a shelf with two books. One of the books is “Paradise Lost” by Milton. This is the subject of Gauguin’s greatest works, including “Contes Barbares.” De Haan is placed crouching to the side of two young beauties in the tropics.

Dominating the later galleries of the show is the vision of paradise Gauguin encountered in Tahiti. Earlier there are the peasants he depicted in Brittany with masterpieces such as “The Yellow Christ” and “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.” There may be no greater or more timely 19th century paintings with Biblical subject matter.

Though it is the startling image of “The Loss of Virginity” that almost steals the show. A fox hugs the shoulder of a prone nude girl. Here Gauguin dives deep, going further and further into dream and myth.

“Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art through June 5, 2011.

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