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Gauguin: An artist for today

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Will Gompertz | 11:23 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Say what you like about Paul Gauguin - the egotistical, self-publicising, ruthless, philandering lothario with a penchant for young girls - the man could paint. And sculpt. And draw. And write.

Painting by Gauguin

Tate Modern's retrospective of the French post-impressionist opens on Thursday and features all these aspects of his work. Unsurprisingly, it is the sizeable collection of his paintings that lights up the show.

Seeing them at close quarters, you realise how influenced he was by Degas: the photographic crops; the thick black outlines; the fascination with young women.

In fact, when Gauguin was doing a stint as a stockbroker - a job Jeff Koons did at a similar age and stage roughly 100 years later - he acquired an artwork by Degas, who then returned the compliment when Gauguin started out by buying ten of his.

It is not really possible to appreciate what a brilliant colourist he was - as is also the case with Francis Bacon - until a roomful of evidence is before your eyes.

Or to witness just how influential he was. And not only on the expressionism of Van Gogh (who called him "the master") or on the saturated colours of the fauves (Derain, Matisse), but with his fantastical narrative imaginings that foreshadowed the work of the surrealists some 30 years later. The most unexpected outcome of seeing an early preview of the exhibition, though, was how contemporary Gauguin feels.

He left Paris for an artists' colony in Brittany because he was fed up with city life and its capitalism, greed and obsession with technology.

He yearned for another way of living and harboured romantic ideals that resonate in today's nu-folk movement. And his otherworldly imaginings, designed to escape the pervading doctrine of realism, can be seen in the resurgence of interest in vampires, science fiction and the Other.

And his work continues to influence artists today. Chris Ofili, Peter Doig and Fiona Rae are all signed-up members of the Gauguin Appreciation Society. But there is one big difference.

Contemporary artists nowadays, even those on the B-list, are able to make a handsome living out of their craft. Those on the A-list are millionaires. Van Gogh famously died penniless and Gauguin wasn't that much better off.

Here's my report on the Gauguin exhibition for last night's news:

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And an interview with Gauguin's great-grand-daughter as well as the curator of the show for this morning's Today programme:

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  • Comment number 1.

    Link to the nu-folk article appears to be dead.

  • Comment number 2.

    Paul Gauguin was a true artist. There are few artists today on the A list as you say or b list for that matter, with his aesthetic vision and mastery. The whole period of the 18th C was a shift from the neo-classical to the modern! We haven't really caught up with that yet.
    This modernism is also true classicism! In other words the work is grounded in eternal principles. You say Gauguin is a colorist. This is true. But the recognition that he and his fellow impressionists and post impressionists had was that 'color and form are one.' This is science and psychology, not just aesthetics, or part of some -ism. A brief meditation on this will prove this to you. (all you see is color!) So color perspective begins to be appreciated. Of course it can be a bit more complicated than that...when you are dealing with the artform this has tremendous implications!
    The shift from neo-classicism to modernism that Gauguin represents is a shift from concept to direct experience. I often say that if you really understood Gauguin's 'poetry', you would see through much of the garbled and incoherent expression that populates the art world of the 20th and 21st C. This is all about the difference between painting and making pictures. A 'picture' can be 'abstract' as well as 'representational'! a 'painting' is always 'abstract'. Gauguin spoke of abstracting. I like to say that 'the abstract nature of reality is the source of beauty.' If you are really paying attention to the active expression of the man, you will see in his paintings an extraordinary balance. That is, the motif, ie. subject matter and composition, the brush, color harmony and artistic personality, ie. intelligence thought and feeling, are all in perfect balance. One does not dominate the other, and if you get that, these aspects of the art I have just described, you are on your way to becoming a connouisseur! The picture or subject does not dominate the medium. The artist does not dominate the medium. The brush work describes the rhythm of the artist's consciousness as much as it describes a 'picture'. The color harmonies absolutely express the artistic sensibility and intelligence. Gauguin sits with all the great artists in our history including Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. They too express this understanding in their work.
    This show is no doubt a great show!
    To end this brief comment, I will simply note a quote of Gauguin's, "You should be able to tell from a brief sketch, whether or not the artist is a master and of what rank,"

  • Comment number 3.

  • Comment number 4.

    No slickness, no virtuosity, no tasteful dexterity, no clichés, no painterly shorthand, no artistic bravura. But honesty, simplicity, creative genius and paedophilia all at the same time.

  • Comment number 5.

    Though a great early hero of mine when I was at school and before I was brainwashed at Art College, (I still have a copy I painted of 'what are you jealous?') the fact remains that Gauguin deserted his family in Europe and despite having caught syphilis in various brothels, still had sex with 14 and 15 year old native girls in Polynesia. When the natives found out he was spreading sickness and wouldn't let their daughters near him he cynically moved to another island where he wasn't known and where syphilis had never been historically present and did the same again. The syphilis killed him and the natives burned his hut supposedly containing his final 'masterpiece'. I don't blame them. Today I do not now have the same esteem for the man. The paintings are the same but knowing all this makes a real difference. I won't be going.

    oh and by the way ABSTRKT I think you mean 19C. I hadn't time for 'a brief meditation' on the rest of your artspeak gibberish. You could have a great future working for the Arts Council.

  • Comment number 6.

    Actually, ABSTRKT, you are wrong about colour and colourists. What is really the foundation of all painting is outline, rather than colour. This is to revive the Renaissance polarity between Florentine "disegno" and Venetian "colorito". The Florentines had Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico and many others; the Venetians had ... Titian. Puh-leese!

    Obviously, to show forth your vision - and if you do not have vision you are not an artist - you must have a mastery of design and Outline. Even in "nature", one thing, one creature, is distinct from another. The way of representing or exemplifying this distinctness of creation in art is Outline.

    As William Blake said (I paraphrase from memory): "What kind of mind must he have who can see only colours and not outline?" Blake also said "Painting is drawing on canvas and nothing else." And again: "If you can't draw, you can't paint." Charlatans will have ignorant fools believe they can paint even though they can't draw, and as we know, a fool and his money are soon parted. This is not, by the way, a diatribe against Gauguin, whom I used to like a lot but whose works I haven't seen for many years (except a few in Paris). I hope to go to the show to see what I can see and see what I think.


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