= The Crawford Arts Review

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Until Sunday 26 January 2020

Fifty or so of Paul Gauguin's portraits, displayed in the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing in a backdrop that is grandly, and blackly, architectural. Congratulations to everyone concerned here.

My eye was caught by a relatively early work of the artist. Having moved to Brittany after the Paris stock market crash which ruined him, Gauguin is shown jauntily wearing a bright Breton top. The same crash had turned him, not without some work of course, from a Sunday to a full-time painter.

Portraits of his friends include an 1889-90 study in charcoal of fellow artist Meijer de Haan and a further sculptural portrait of De Haan fashioned from oak wood.

Portraits of Tahitian women abound, dazzlingly. The Exhibition's poster work is the 1883 painting 'The Ancestors of Tehamana' or 'Tehamana Has Many Parents' (Merahi metua no Tehamana); in painting her the way he did Gauguin made her an icon. French Polynesia's national flower (tiaré flowers, Tahitian gardenias) are wound in her hair, she wears a modestly high-necked smock dress; the fan she carries serves as an explicit reference to the tropics. Behind her the artist has made a frieze of hieroglyph-like symbols. It matters not that they can't be read. They're there to represent mystery and exoticism, the unknown and unknowable early lineage of the peoples of the South Seas.

In full creative flow, and knowing syphilis would probably kill him, Gauguin wrote on one of the paintings of Tahitian beauties he sent back to Paris: "What! Are you jealous?" one can only surmise his thoughts at that point.

The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square

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