The success of Tate Modern’s Gauguin: the Maker of Myth exhibition can, in my opinion, be attributed to that fact that as an artist “Gauguin’s no visionary, he’s a schemer” This, perhaps the most insightful description I’ve heard on the work of Paul Gauguin, was beautifully stated by his contemporary Camilla Pisarro. It is as a schemer that Gauguin became crucial for the beginnings of modern art, and it is the art of scheming that is a defining feature of what makes modern art, modern.
The Impressionists represent the visionaries, who sought to capture what they viewed when sat painting en plein-air, discovering a representative romance. They were however, as visionaries, only skirting around modernism, not venturing quite far enough from what they already knew, or far enough into their imagination. It was those who came post the Impressionists, the bohemian radicals such as Paul Gauguin, whose imagination for what art could be, led them to discover the real shock of the new.
To be modern is to scheme so that materials are transformed into a work of art. It is certainly to encompass more than is provided before your eyes, or to your fingertips.
The most dramatic examples of Gauguin’s are those, which exemplify his fearless approach to all elements of colour. The enigmatic Breton Girls dancing Pont-Aven, 1888, depicts three Brittany maidens held momentarily in scalene triangular form – each facing and reaching into their own separate direction. The magic of this is that in all parts of the room, it feels as though they are inviting you in. The light is delightfully different on each face, absorbing into the skin a range of surprising hints, which come to echo the blanket chromaticism of the painting. There is potency to these potentially excessively (but not actually,) variegated and uncomplimentary colours. - This is the daring flair of a successful modern artist.
The palette represents a surprisingly sophisticated soberness of colour – muted limes shade the grass the girls dance upon; pastels lights in the sky highlight the village buildings and shrubbery; and fiery hints define patches of exposed skin otherwise pale, jaundice and carrying ill teals tints. The artist may well have endorsed the archaic Breton stereotypes, but he equips the images with an accurate, if borderline-abstract drama.
The creativity of colour is just one of the ways Gauguin schemes. He is the self-created bohemian artist, he formed himself into a character when he transformed from Bourgeois banker to avant-garde artist. His character became the weight behind his art - where he lacked in formal training, belief in his own abilities became the self-motivator of his career declaring, ‘I am a great artist I know it.’
This is one striking method that modern artists have taken to become the painter-schemer – he/she builds an outlandish character to better advertise themselves by gaining press and selling their art by establishing a celebrity brand. Whether this is Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol, the role of artist persona has been exaggerated to a much greater significance.
Though Gauguin was far from known and popular in the day, this is the most popular exhibition I have ever visited. It seems more than a little ironic that an artist who so fervently sought the primitive past for inspiration, and wished to escape from the art world community, became a leader in modern art. What he did come to represent by doing so however, was an adventurer into new places across the world - to the Pacific and Caribbean islands of Martinique, Masquesas, and most decidedly – Tahiti; and consequently into new places in art via a daringness to discover. Even if new finds are just old things uncovered.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at the Tate Modern until 16th January
This article also features in Warwick’s student newspaper ‘The Boar’