Self-portrait, Paul Gaugin, 1889
A painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist and writer, Gauguin stands today as one of the giants of Post-Impressionism and a pioneer of Modernism. He was also a great storyteller, creating narratives in every medium he touched. Some of his tales were true, others near-fabrications. Even the lush Tahitian masterpieces for which he is best known reflect an exotic paradise more imaginary than real. The fables Gauguin spun were meant to promote himself and his art, an intention that was more successful with the man than his work; he was well known during his lifetime, but his paintings sold poorly.
“Gauguin created his own persona and established his own myth as to what kind of a man he was,” says Nicholas Serota, the director of London’s Tate, whose exhibition, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” traveled last month to Washington’s National Gallery of Art (until June 5). “Gauguin had the genuine sense that he had artistic greatness,” says Belinda Thomson, curator of the Tate Modern’s exhibition. “But he also plays games, so you are not sure whether you can take him literally.”
Of the nearly 120 works on display in Washington, several tantalizing self-portraits depict Gauguin in various guises: struggling painter in a garret studio; persecuted victim; even as Christ in the Garden of Olives. An 1889 self-portrait shows him with a saintly halo and a devilish snake (with Garden of Eden apples for good measure), suggesting just how contradictory he could be.
Certainly the artist would have been pleased by the renewed attention; his goal, after all, was to be famous. He dressed bizarrely, wrote self-serving critiques of his work, courted the press and even handed out photographs of himself to his fans. He was often drunk, belligerent and promiscuous—and possibly suicidal. He removed himself from Paris society to increasingly exotic places—Brittany, Martinique, Tahiti and finally to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia—to escape a world he felt was modernizing too quickly.
No te aha oe ririr (Why Are You Angry?), Paul Gauguin, 1896.