Wednesday, 28 August 2013

COLLECTING GAUGUIN: The Courtauld Gallery ENDS Sunday 08 September 2013

The Gauguin exhibition Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the 1920s is this year’s Summer Showcase in the Courtauld Gallery in the Strand. As well as paintings, you’ll find pages from the artist’s sketchbook, and a marble bust of his Danish wife Mette that he probably had made professionally from a model of his own in wax or clay (the original has disappeared). You’ll also find a series of prints exquisitely realized from Gauguin’s own woodcuts by his son Pola, as well as archive material such as letters and the exhibition poster from the first post-impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London in 1910. The paintings represent the work of Paul Gauguin collected by Samuel Courtauld during the 1920s, hence the title, and which form part of the basis of the Courtauld’s glorious permanent collection.

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris of French and part-Peruvian parentage. He was only 18 months old when the political climate in 1850s France had the family set sail for Lima to stay with his mother’s family. His father died on the voyage. So until the age of 7, the boy grew up speaking Peruvian Spanish and surrounded by the colourful traditions of South America. The sense of the exotic and the primitive never left him. The family eventually moved back to France to live with Gauguin’s grandfather in Orléans. It is hard to imagine a sharper contrast between Peru and the haute bourgeoisie of ancien régime France at that time. These twin pulls were to haunt him all his life.

The works in the exhibition are arranged chronologically by production so it’s fascinating to see Gauguin’s progression as an artist coming from the background of the stock exchange who was not only searching for the simple life, but searching for his own style as he developed friendships among artists such as Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne. According to the curator, Dr Karen Selles, in Martinique Landscape (1887) (see below) you can see the influence of Cézanne in Gauguin’s use of multiple short brush strokes. In The Haystacks (1889) the artist has started to abandon classical perspective with the flattened shapes of the field and the mountains of gleaming hay. I find this to be Gauguin’s master touch: finding a way to paint a world so hermetically sealed that you see no other world.

The curators have been more than assiduous when visiting this room with their light meters. Not all the considerable detail in the paintings can be seen. Buy the catalogue (see below) from the gallery shop opposite and look through it over a coffee.

All his life, Gauguin seems to have longed for the simple life. After Martinique, he sailed to Tahiti in French Polynesia, a 3-month voyage, hoping to find an escape from the European civilization he found stifling. The paintings he made there are stunning.

But Gauguin was ill, suffering from heart and stomach problems and drinking too much. He had sold 30 of his paintings in Paris before he left for Tahiti in 1891; on a return trip in 1893, he had sold none. He was depressed to the point of being suicidal. And still he painted on. He also had syphilis at the time he painted Nevermore (not pictured). He knows the end will come. But first he will have his pleasure. And he makes a brilliantly decorative thing of it.

Nevermore (1897) is full of the symbolism of death: the raven painted into the frieze at top left can symbolize death, ill-omen or the souls of the damned; he chooses a deathly grey with which to paint his model's upper lip; the dark figures in the background also seem to prefigure death. The very title, taken from the words spoken by The Raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous poem, seem to speak the artist's thoughts. The final stanza is
 

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting      
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;      
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,      
The scene And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor:      
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor      
    Shall be lifted—nevermore!     

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)
Te Rerioa (The Dream), 1897
Oil on canvas, 95.1 x 130.2 cm
©The Courtauld Gallery, London

The Courtauld entrance door,
 at North Wing, Somerset House, Strand
© 2013 Sally Crawford

Leaving the street behind:
looking back at a tumultuously trafficked Strand
© 2013 Sally Crawford
Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)
Nave Nave Fenua (from the Noa Noa series), 1893 (published in 1921)
Wood engraving, 33.4 x 20.4 cm
 ©The Courtauld Gallery, London
Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)
Martinique Landscape, 1887
Oil on canvas, 115 x 88.50 cm
© Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

In The Dream (also 1897) the title is usually rendered as Te Rerioa or Te Rereioa which means in fact ‘The Nightmare’. The scene depicted is generally thought to be Gauguin’s own dwelling which he shared with one of his teenage lovers and their young daughter. Although the child in the foreground left is generally described as an infant, this is surely no infant. The jaw is not an infant’s jaw: the secondary dentition is well advanced. This, it seems to me, is the jaw of a young child. Who are the two women? In the painted background, is the man riding up the path away from the hut the doctor who has pronounced the doom-laden words: “there is nothing we can do”. Is the older woman a relative, witchdoctor, or comforter in the vigil? Is the foreground figure the mother? Why is her breast exposed and her nipple swollen? Has she been advised to suckle the child to promote recovery? What does the women's posture of mute acceptance say to us? And what of the copulating dogs (or rabbits) painted into the frieze at middle right?


The Courtauld Gallery, North Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN, Tel. +44 (0)20 7848 2526 Opening hours: Daily 10 am to 6 pm Last admission 5.30 pm Admission: Adult £6, concessions £5, Mondays (including public holidays) £3