National Gallery: Gauguin’s Portraits offer an insight into the man himself

Detail from Paul Gauguin's Self-Portrait with Idol, 1893. Oil on canvas, 43.8 × 32.7 cm. McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada

Paul Gauguin would be pleased.

As people move through the new exhibition of Gauguin portraits at the National Gallery, they’ll likely form impressions of what manner of person Gauguin was. That was exactly the point of Gauguin’s portraits.

“Gauguin was highly adept at promoting himself,” wrote Alistair Wright in the exhibition catalogue, “and each version of his self — whether apparently assured or seemingly marked by hesitation — was designed to propagate a carefully crafted self-image and thus to attract attention in the competitive world of the Parisian avant-garde.”

Paul Gauguin. Self-portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890–91. Oil on canvas, 38 × 46 cm. 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

This sort of personal propagandizing makes this exhibition of Gauguin portraits — the first held anywhere in the world, remarkably — an intriguing experience. Who was this man who cast himself as a martyr or a savage or l’étranger, or whichever self-image he wished to convey at any point in his lifetime?

Gauguin was of the 19th century (born in Paris in 1848) and he remains one of the world’s most-recognizable art names — albeit a level of fame achieved only after his death in 1903, when the world belatedly recognized his post-impressionist trailblazing.

Paul Gauguin. Melancholic (Faaturuma), 1891. Oil on canvas, 94 x 68.3 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust. Photo: Nelson-Atikins Media Services / Chris Bjuland and Joshua Ferdinand.

He was extraordinarily well traveled, considering how long it took to get anywhere in those days. He sailed around the Horn to Peru as a child, and later all over South America, Europe and, via the Middle East, to various stops in the South Pacific.

He’s most famous for his time in Tahiti, of course, and there are portraits here of Tehamana, the girl he lived with in Polynesia (a relationship not uncommon at the time). These portraits succinctly demonstrate how he challenged the strictures of portraiture by putting symbolism and spiritual references ahead of the putative character and social standing of subjects. They also show how he experimented with “intense colour,” which, say the exhibition notes, pushed his portraits “into new realms of expressionism.”

He never claimed to be unprecedented. Indeed, his portraits were often of other artists, or filled with references to other artists. The self-portrait Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin, from 1889, is a direct variation on Gustave Courbet’s earlier Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet — though Gauguin’s is comparatively darker in its opaque narrative.

He also dedicated portraits to artists he admired, though such dedications — being painted on canvas and not written in stone — could be amended. One small self-portrait was first dedicated to his “friend and disciple” Charles Laval, and later rededicated to the painter Eugène Carrière.

Paul Gauguin. Woman of the Mango (Vahine no te vi), 1892. Oil on canvas, 73 × 45.1 cm. Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Mitro Hood

Other references were more subtle: his Still Life With Profile of Laval from 1886 used his friend’s profile in “a compositional strategy popularized by Edward Degas,” the notes say. His 1901 Still Life With “Hope” is a “surrogate portrait” of his dear and (by then) late friend Vincent Van Gogh, the foreground filled with Van Gogh-esque sunflowers, the background with a print by Degas and a painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

His relationship with Van Gogh was profound. The exhibition notes quote Gauguin writing of his room filled with yellow sunflowers in a yellow pot, the sun passing through yellow curtains and flooding “all this fluorescence with gold.” He wrote of his friend, with an expressionist’s disregard for the rules of syntax; “When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us mad, and at constant war over the beauty of colour — me, I loved the colour red.”

Yet yellow is a highlight of the exhibition, in the 1894 portrait Young Christian Girl. The young woman is clad in a missionary dress of brilliant hues of sunflower and daffodil, her large, masculine hands clasped in prayer, as if the artist himself were paying reverence to the power of the colours.

The exhibition, curated by Cornelia Homburg and Christopher Riopelle, thoroughly displays the range of Gauguin’s portraiture, in subject, style and media — there are paintings and drawings and etchings, and sculpture in wood and bronze. The latter includes a self portrait titled Oviri (the Tahitian word for savage), in which Gauguin showed himself in profile to emphasize “his hooked nose, an attribute of his Inca heritage.”

There are also portraits by Gauguin’s contemporaries, for context. They and Gauguin’s works are spread through multiple rooms — and those rooms deserve their own comment.

Paul Gauguin. Portrait of Madame Roulin, 1888. Oil on canvas, 50.5 × 63.5 cm. Saint Louis Art Museum. Funds given by Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg.

The exhibition designers have opened up the exhibition space with larger doorways and cutouts in the walls, which all help to bring formerly disparate spaces closer together.

That new openness is also seen in wall panels that encourage visitors to take photographs of the art.

Where once the gallery fretted over people taking photos, it’s now actively advocating that visitors do so (no flash, of course), and that they share the photos on social media. Unfortunately, that admirable embrace of free advertising is crimped by the many pieces in the exhibition on loan from institutions that haven’t caught up to the times (e.g., Musée d’Orsay), and which require the National Gallery to prevent visitors from taking photographs of loaned works. Such efforts for image control are hopeless in an age when, as the critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently in The New Yorker, “no one can boast immunity to surveillance.”

There’s one final hint that perhaps the gallery is trying to shake off some of its traditional fustiness: In a tiny bit of inspired and whimsical marketing, there’s a “Gauguin Smoothie” available at the Second Cup near the group entrance. It looks green but it tastes of mango and banana and sugar. Like a Gauguin self-portrait, it wants you to think it’s something it’s not.

Regardless, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see the gallery loosening up in various ways.

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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.