Paul Gauguin's Powerful Explorations in the Art of Portraiture
It is astonishing that the work of French artist Paul Gauguin has never been examined through the lens of portraiture before. Throughout his career he painted many portraits of friends, family, fellow artists, models (some identified, some not) and a relatively large proportion of self-portraits. For a brief period, during his first visit to Tahiti between 1891 and 1893, he even tried – although unsuccessfully – to make a living from commissioned portraits. The exhibition Gauguin: Portraits, on view at the National Gallery of Canada, investigates for the first time Gauguin’s inventive exploration of the genre, his reconsideration of the very idea of what a portrait could be.
Part of the reason why portraiture may have been neglected, until now, in the study of Gauguin's work may be due to the fact that it is a very old, traditional and conservative genre. And Gauguin’s main purpose was to disassociate himself from everything conventional in the world of fine art and make himself the leader of the avant garde. While the Parisian audience of his day did not always understand what he was up to, today he is accepted as one of the great masters in the history of Western art, one who successfully laid much of the foundation for the emergence of modern art in the 20th century. As vividly displayed in the exhibition, the art of portraiture formed a key part of Gauguin’s larger aesthetic endeavour. In fact, his challenge to portraiture was so successful, so exuberant, and so inventive, that his close study and deep knowledge of the art of the past can, at times, be hard to discern. Indeed, his liberation of colour and form from a strict representational role and the creation of a new symbolic language in his search to represent the abstract qualities of emotion and the metaphysical world of the spirit, pushed the very boundaries of portraiture.
Gauguin's portrait Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana (Merahi metua no Tehamana), painted in 1893 during Gauguin's first visit to Tahiti, provides us with a stunning example of how Gauguin transformed portraiture and made the genre relevant to his own artistic and aesthetic ideals. At first glance, Tehamana has all the hallmarks of a portrait in the tradition of European art, albeit one in which the sense of three-dimensional space has been flattened and the decorative quality of the forms and colours has been heightened to a very beautiful effect. The woman is shown seated, in three-quarter length, dressed in a striking gown, and is surrounded by objects of symbolic value.
The decorations on the wall behind Tehamana are meant to evoke Polynesia’s mythic past (Tehamana’s ancestors referenced in the title), but they are essentially wildly inventive creations of Gauguin, composed from a multiplicity of sources. The oversized enigmatic hieroglyphs painted in a golden colour are derived from tablets discovered on Easter Island, which Gauguin had seen at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and of which he owned a photograph. The figure to Tehamana’s side is, perhaps, the ancestor goddess of creation Hina, and the floating heads over her shoulder are mysterious spirits of the dead (tupapau) that appear frequently in Gauguin’s work. It is possible the mangoes beside her are symbols of fertility or they could be simply a general evocation of the island’s tropical vegetation. Even though these elements derive from long traditions in the South Pacific, they come from disparate traditions, and are ones that would have been totally unfamiliar to Gauguin's European audience.
Surprisingly, even though she is named, we do not know if this painting is a close likeness of Tehamana. Gauguin does not identify her in any other work, and although we suspect that she was the model used in several of his Tahitian scenes and may have been the sitter in other portraits, such as Melancholic (Faaturuma) of 1891 and Woman of the Mango (Vahine no te vi), 1892, we cannot be sure. To further complicate matters, most of what is known about Tehamana comes from Noa Noa, Gauguin’s narrative of his encounters in Tahiti and his understanding of its religious traditions, which is now recognized to be highly fictionalized, even plagiarized in places, and consequently unreliable. In reality, many of the traditional beliefs and spiritual practices that Gauguin refers to in Noa Noa had already begun to disappear by the time he arrived on the island. He had not found the unblemished paradise untouched by western colonization that he had hoped for. Instead, he found a French colony with a diverse population of Polynesians, the majority of whom had been converted to Christianity several generations earlier. Tehamana’s dress – an unstructured gown introduced by missionaries at the beginning of the nineteenth century to encourage European ideas of modesty – provides a visible manifestation of cultural change due to colonialism. In the end, Tehamana, is a creative reinvention designed for Gauguin’s own aesthetic and symbolic purposes and for his Parisian public. It tells us much more about Gauguin the artist than it does about an actual person, or the realities of life in Tahiti at the end of the 19th century.
Self portraits were a major theme throughout Gauguin's life and twelve of them, nine paintings and three sculptures, are shown in the exhibition. One of the most intriguing examples on view, Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin of 1889, is not immediately recognizable as a portrait. The painter's face is almost entirely obscured and the scene taking place is difficult to decipher. Yet, the title is clear, and further investigation reveals that the painting speaks unambiguously to Gauguin’s declared artistic heritage and his attempt to create for himself a novel artistic persona. Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin is a direct acknowledgment of Gauguin’s high regard for Gustave Courbet, realist painter and the foremost avant-garde artist of the previous generation. He directly quotes Courbet’s painting, Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854).
Where Courbet greets the gentleman (his patron), on the road as his equal with out-stretched arm, Gauguin remains apart, his approach impeded by a gate. Where Courbet engages with the world around him, Gauguin is cut off, swaddled in a heavy coat. His one visible eye is half-closed and he does not engage with the shrouded Breton peasant. The work was painted in Le Pouldu, an isolated village on the Brittany coast that was home to a circle of avant-garde artists. Gauguin’s choice of clothing, especially the clogs and the landscape, bear witness to his identification with what he perceived to be the timeless rhythms and rituals of rural Breton life. Gauguin, thus, presents us with one of his self-consciously constructed artistic identities, an alter-ego to the cosmopolitan Parisian artist.
Gauguin’s friendships and relationships with other artists in avant-garde circles (including the salon of poet Stéphane Mallarmé) played a key role in his development as an artist. Portraits of these friends and fellow artists form an important core of the exhibition, including the National Gallery of Canada’s own bust of Meijer de Haan that sparked the inception of the exhibition.
De Haan was a painter with a keen intellect, and an important friend to Gauguin. No one else appeared as often in Gauguin’s art, usually in the pose of a thinker, with chin in hand, reading or in contemplation, as we can see in the portrait of 1889. The books point to their shared interest in religion, philosophy and artistic creativity; the apples refer to temptation in the pursuit of knowledge, and the lamp represents enlightenment.
Astonishingly, a number of Gauguin’s still lifes can actually be understood as portraits. Shortly after they first met in Paris, Vincent van Gogh invited Gauguin to join him in Arles, in the south of France, at the end of 1888, for what became a pivotal few months for both artists, marked by intense artistic exchange and competition. They worked side-by-side, painting the same sitters, and talking passionately about portraiture, the nature of art, beauty and the power of colour.
Van Gogh’s, now famous, stunningly expressive still lifes of sunflowers, which were hung on the walls of the “Yellow House” in Arles, were a complete revelation to Gauguin. Forever after, the sunflower endured for Gauguin as a vivid reminder of his Dutch friend and colleague. Gauguin later painted several still lifes with sunflowers, such as the 1901 Still Life with “Hope,” that are regarded as surrogate portraits of Van Gogh. Within the "portrait" Gauguin also inserted his own artistic presence in the form of two works by Edgar Degas and Puvis de Chavannes – artists he and Van Gogh deeply admired, as well as a pre-Columbian-like flower pot, which was a nod to his own proclaimed Incan heritage. Painted more than ten years after Van Gogh’s death, it is an homage not only to his friend and respected fellow artist, but also their shared passion for art.
The exhibition Gauguin: Portraits promises the visitor a view of Gauguin’s powerful and inventive explorations into the art of portraiture, and reveals how Gauguin is never interested in simply capturing a likeness, but is more concerned with representing the symbolic and emotional nature of his relationships with his sitters, exploring the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of art, and foremost, creating and portraying his own artistic identity.
Gauguin: Portraits is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from May 24, 2019 to September 8, 2019, before travelling to the National Gallery in London (October 7, 2019 to January 26, 2020). For lectures, talks and related activities, see the Gallery's extensive public program. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.