National Gallery breaking new ground with exploration of Gauguin portraits

Detail from Gauguin's Self Portrait with Yellow Christ.

Paul Gauguin is an artist so recognizable, even more than a century after his death, that you can take a luxury cruise of the South Pacific islands seen in so many of his paintings. So it’s remarkable that a major aspect of his work, portraiture, has never been the subject of a major exhibition.

When Gauguin: Portraits opens at the National Gallery of Canada on May 24 it will be the first exhibition anywhere in the world focused solely on the portraits of “one of the most influential and complex artists of the 19th century,” as gallery materials say.

It’s another example of the gallery finding a new way to look at an old master. In 2016, despite Claude Monet’s well-trodden past as an exhibition superstar, the gallery and curator Anabelle Kienle Ponka found a new perspective by focusing on his paintings of bridges — a theme that may sound pedantically niche, but was in fact an illuminating look at Monet’s work and style over the course of his career.

In 2012 it was Van Gogh: Up Close, a look at his love of nature and how he so gloriously represented the natural world in his paintings. It was, the gallery notes, “the most visited exhibition in 20 years” at the institution.

The curator of that exhibition was Cornelia Homburg, an international expert on late 19th-century art, who’s back in Ottawa as co-curator of the Gauguin exhibition, with Christopher Riopelle of the National Gallery in London, England.

Paul Gauguin. Portrait of Meijer de Haan, 1889–90. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1968. Photo: NGC

Homburg sat for an interview to enthusiastically share how the show has come together, and what visitors will see when the doors open in May.

The unprecedented look at Gauguin’s portraits should, as with the Monet and Van Gogh shows, likewise illuminate the artist’s career and life, how he thought about art, what art can do, and what art is for.

“Strangely enough, astonishingly enough, there has never been an exhibition on his portraiture, ever,” Homburg says, seated in a research room that is gorgeously bathed in natural light and overlooks the river below. “I think one of the reasons is that portraiture and Gauguin is not easily definable. This has been the great fun part, and also the great challenge, of the exhibition, to identify, what is it when we talk about a portrait?”

Example 1: Gauguin’s “portrait” of his friend the Dutch painter Meijer de Haan, roughly carved into a solid block of wood, and sitting on the table in front of her during the interview. It was, she says, the “starting point” of the exhibition. She saw the sculpture while at the gallery in 2012 and found it “absolutely fascinating,” she says. “That started me on this exploration of, what are we actually talking about when we talk about Gauguin portraits?”

Gauguin did many portraits (or works that may or may not have been portraits in the traditional sense of his day), and in various media — painting, drawing, sculpting, carving. Even Noa Noa, his famous memoir of his years in Tahiti, is now thought to be “largely fictionalized,” she says. It is, in its way, a self-portrait designed to influence how Gauguin was seen by the public.

In the second half of the 19th century when Gauguin was working, a typical portrait would show the sitter’s social standing, family background, and fine household. But Gauguin’s portraits were often less literally about the subject and more about ideas Gauguin wanted to present to his audience. He, Homburg wrote in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “broke open the traditional function of the genre by deliberately disregarding the identity or social milieu of his sitters.”

There are plenty portraits by Gauguin, of his friends (especially de Haan and Van Gogh), and of peoples outside Parisian society (peasants in Brittany or, most famously, the “savages” in French Polynesia). There are self portraits, several of which Homburg brings up on screen to dig into that question, what was Gauguin trying to do?

In his Self Portrait with Yellow Christ, “he presents himself how he wants other people to see him,” in this case as “a suffering artist.”

Gauguin placed himself in front of his own painting of Christ, and his pottery sculpture of a head that he identified as a self-portrait. (So the self-portrait is also a painting of a self-portrait.)

Paul Gauguin. Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana (Merahi metua no Tehamana), 1893. Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Deering McCormick. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

“To think about a pot that doesn’t even look like him as a self-portrait is of course very interesting,” Homburg says. “He claims that it is an object that shows (him) because it’s fired in the heat of the oven, and it’s like going into the inferno with Dante, so to speak.” With the adjacent Christ image, Gauguin is “very much showing himself as the artist who is a martyr, who is not understood.”

In portraits of himself and of others, Gauguin put the subject “in a different context than the traditional artist,” she says. Gauguin would put himself in a South Pacific background, or wearing the cloak a Bretton farmer. At one point he was in a woollen hat like those worn by Buffalo Bill Cody, who was touring Europe at the time with his Wild West shows.

In his famous portraits of Tahitian women he further messed with expectations and tradition. The portrait Tehamana Has Many Parents is very western in its composition — the subject seated in a western chair, formally dressed in a western fashion, and with what looks like ornate Victorian wallpaper as a background. But the woman is of a different place and culture, and the wallpaper is actually symbols from Polynesian folklore, history and myth.

“What he wants us to see is a combination of mythic past with colonial present.” All of this “is part of a large story that he’s creating.”

When Gauguin returned from Tahiti to Europe, Homburg says, the public looked at his paintings and thought, “What is this?” His work “looked extremely strange to people at that time,” she says. . . “With him, the idea of portraiture is much broader and also goes in very different direction.”

Only later did “people really understand what was going on and how important it was,” she says. Some did grasp Gauguin’s meaning, notably including Matisse and Picasso. “They wouldn’t have done what they did if Gauguin hadn’t done what he did.”

History’s been more generous to Gauguin than was his own time, when he struggled financially. “It is clear that artistic choices he made throughout his career were often neither popular nor particularly expedient,” wrote art historian Elizabeth Childs in the catalogue.

If Gauguin has chosen otherwise, if he’d accepted only conventional commissions that brought in plump fees, it’s likely the National Gallery wouldn’t be featuring his work this summer, and you wouldn’t be reading about him right now. Also, art today would be very different.

Paul Gauguin. Self-portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890–91. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Acquired by the Musées nationaux with the participation of Philippe Meyer and a Japanese patron, co-ordinated by the newspaper Nikkei, 1994. Photo: René-Gabriel Ojeda. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.