Gauguin's art has all the appearance of a
flight from civilisation, of a search for new ways of life, more
primitive, more real and more sincere. His break away from a solid
middle-class world, abandoning family, children and job, his refusal to
accept easy glory and easy gain are the best-known aspects of Gauguin's
fascinating life and personality. During his first stay in Tahiti (he
left in 1893,
only to return in 1895 and remain until his death), Gauguin discovered
primitive art, with its flat forms and the violent colours belonging to
an untamed nature.
In Femme au Mango (Woman with a Mango),
Gauguin successfully interacts with his subject as a flesh and blood
human being rather than a type, or the incarnation of his philosophy.
Beyond the woman's face is a ground of yellow that moves joyously from
gold to lemon as it sweeps above and around her head. And some of that
yellow infuses her beautiful face, making her look illuminated from
within with a golden glow that interrupts the Gauguinesque surface of
Words are an integral
element in Gauguin's work. He explained that his paintings involved a
'musical part'– their composition, lines and colours – and a 'literary
part'– the creation of a story that justified his aesthetic decisions.
Devising the title was an essential part of the process, particularly so
when it was carved into the frame or painted onto the canvas. However,
these fragmentary texts never fully explain or close down the meaning of
an image. The stories remain ambiguous.
When he chose Tahitian titles for his paintings, their ability to
conjure a remote, exotic world for western ears seems to have been as
important to him as their specific meaning. His own grasp of the
Tahitian language was patchy, but he was entranced by the barely
comprehended snatches of speech around him, and often noted down phrases
that turned out to be quite prosaic when translated. Indeed, the
unfamiliar words that he incorporates into his paintings help to
preserve an estranged distance between the European viewer and the
tropical scene. Several of his Tahitian paintings are titled with
questions, including 'Where are you going?' and 'Are you jealous?',
apparently fragments of conversation between the figures that hint at
small dramas played out between them.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth
is curated by art historian Belinda Thomson, Honorary Fellow at the
University of Edinburgh, Christine Riding, Curator, Tate, and Amy
Dickson, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern, with Tamar Garb, Professor in
the History of Art, University College London. The extensive documentary
display is selected and curated by Vincent Gille with Maeve Polkinhorn,
Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.