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GAUGUIN, (Eugène-Henri-) Paul/ ARTISTS 1650-1899/ ART MAIN

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(b. June 7, 1848, Paris, d. May 8, 1903, Atuona, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia)

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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. 

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Thitian Women with Mangos  
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Two Tahitian Women with Mangos Woman with a Mango
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 flat paint.
Stuart Jeffries


Paul Gauguin
Merahi Metua no Tehamana (The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has many Parents)1893 
Photo: © The Art Institute of Chicago
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.