The Serpent in His Own Eden

Paul Gauguin forged the myth of himself as a South Seas primitive — but his painting was not just a pose

Michael Prodger

In 1902, Gauguin, penniless, syphilitic and dying, wrote to correspondents back in France that he wanted to end his sensual idyll in French Polynesia and return to the land of his birth. He was dissuaded by his friend Daniel de Monfreid: “You are at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth.” To come back, de Monfreid suggested, would be to destroy the legend. So Gauguin stayed on the far side of the world and died the following year. And his legend has indeed proved immortal.

The painter in the guise of an atavistic mystic is the main strand examined in Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern (until January 16) — with some 150 paintings, prints, sculptures, ceramics and letters it is the largest show of his work on these shores for 50 years. The other myth he made, or rather treated, was of course that of the fables and spirituality of both the Western world and the Tahitian.

There was something self-conscious, almost cynical, in the way Gauguin went about forging his public image as a savage-sage. From 1871 to 1885, he was, for all his interest in avant-garde painting, a solid member of the bourgeoisie. He was married, had five children and worked as a stockbroker in both Copenhagen and Paris. Nothing mythical there. It was only when his friendship with the Impressionists prompted him to become a professional painter that, with a very contemporary self-promoting sassiness, he started to work on his outsider image.

As he began to dress up — in a Magyar cloak, Breton waistcoat and astrakhan fez — he also began to talk up his Peruvian and Spanish ancestry and hand out photographs of himself to acquaintances. He started to dismiss Paris with its cliques and critics and extol the moral purity of untainted civilisations. He also ruthlessly abandoned his family. “I am a great artist and I know it,” he declared. 

His painting, however, was not an act. His first port of call was unexotic Brittany. “I find there the savage, the primitive,” he wrote. “When my clogs resound on the granite soil, I hear the muffled, dull powerful tone that I’m after in painting.” He found too an authentic and ancient spirituality which meant that he could portray a wayside Calvary as an almost pagan totem (The Yellow Christ, 1889) or stumble across Jacob wrestling the angel watched by cows and a crowd of women in starched white Breton headdresses (Vision after the Sermon, 1888). With bright slabs of colour and bold black outlines he was not, like his Impressionist friends, interested in exploring a new way of painting reality but in depicting something deeper than mere surface appearances; a different reality, profound and unseen.

The lessons he learnt in Brittany — spiritual symbolism, simplification, colour liberated from representation — found even more scope in Tahiti. It was there that his work achieved its most poetic form. Gauguin was adamant that his aesthetic was distinct: “I have always said…that the literary poetry of the painter was special and not the illustration or translation into forms of written texts.” His special poetry was to conjure up, through colour notes that act like musical notes, a prelapsarian paradise. In a heady realm of dreamy young girls (men hardly ever feature) and vivid foliage ancient gods sit on the windowsill or the foot of the bed, they are there in wall carvings and they haunt the rivers and forests. They watch over eating and drinking, sex and sleep, sentinels between the spiritual and the temporal.  

The erotic lassitude was, of course, another myth. Just as the Brittany Gauguin had painted bore no resemblance to the hardscrabble late 19th-century reality, so by this time his Tahitian Venuses wore Western smocks and missionaries had ensured that the god they worshipped was Christian. And the painter, as he was aware himself, was the serpent in his own Eden — a drunk and a sexual predator, a morphine addict and near-invalid little loved by the villagers he lived among. His genius, however, was to make the myth correspond with our communal imaginings. So potent was it that it is no surprise he believed it himself.

It is not just Britain’s Catholics who are the beneficiaries of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit last month. In an ecumenical act of grace he has facilitated the loan of four of the Vatican’s magnificent Acts of the Apostles tapestries. They are hanging, until October 17, in the Victoria and Albert Museum alongside the seven Raphael cartoons from which they were woven. This is the first time since 1516-1521, when the tapestries were made in the Flanders workshop of Pieter van Aelst, that both cartoons and weavings have been in the same room. Together these precious objects represent one of the high-water marks of the Renaissance.

It is worth remembering that in the 16th century tapestries were far more valuable than paintings: these de luxe creations in wool, silk and gilt-metal-wrapped thread took teams of highly-skilled workers hundreds of hours to create. 

Their sheer expense is one reason why Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael, the most fashionable artist of the day, to design 10 tapestries to hang in the Sistine Chapel. They were his response to the patronage of his papal predecessors Sixtus IV and Julius II that had made the Chapel the most artistically elevated space in Christendom. Even then these monumental depictions of the lives of St Peter and St Paul were only in situ on occasions of great liturgical pomp. 

While the passage of 500 years has taken a heavy toll on their colours, their full majesty is still easy to imagine. The opportunity to compare the tapestries with Raphael’s compositions will probably never come again. That they are together at all is a minor miracle and reason enough to give thanks.

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