Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Gauguin at the Tate Modern - a must-see exhibition

Until my visit to the Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern in London yesterday, I had always considered the painter a bit of a lightweight, whose reputation never matched French Impressionist contemporaries. An also-ran behind Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Manet. Something of a disreputable joke – the former stockbroker who deserted his family for the young flesh of Tahiti. But the exhibition Gauguin: Maker of Myth, which runs until January 16th, swiftly dispels any such notion and places the man at the forefront of the development of Modern Art. His influence is seen clearest in the work of Picasso and Matisse but he touched many others, Munch included.
Gauguin’s unique style whether painting the Breton countryside or Tahitian beauties evolved early – vivid colour, flat perspective, symbolism, ethnic art, inspiration from the sacred and mundane – and above all the ‘strangeness’ of his vision.
Eccentricity is part of the job description of the artist but with Gauguin we see a studied self-mythology, which almost became compulsory as the 20th century grew with Dali being an extreme example. These days artists and their art - Damien Hirst, Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin - come as a job lot.
I have some quibbles with the Gauguin show – the first major exhibition devoted to the artist in 50 years. A full-price ticket is a hefty £13-50. The paintings would benefit from being hung with more space between them. There may be excuses for both.
But what is unforgivable is Tate Modern’s obsession with thematic rather than chronological ordering of its works.
By devoting self-portraits, landscapes, female subjects and the rest to their own rooms, the exhibition’s curators might get excited by a spot the differences game in Gauguin's treatments. But for any one other than an art historian, the simplest and most effective way to get a grasp of any artist’s work is to follow him or her through the years.
You wouldn’t organise your family photographs by putting all the holiday snaps, school sports days, birthday parties etc together in separate albums. Not if, that is, you want to see how your children develop. It should be the same with paintings.
That said with over 250 works gathered from around the world, this is, and I don’t use the words lightly, a must-see exhibition.
The Chrysler Museum of Art lent the exhibition one of the show's finest gems The Loss of Virginity (1890) and this link examines the masterpiece below.

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