Gauguin Portraits at the National Gallery, London

The National Gallery in London presents Gauguin: Portraits until 26th January 2020. Featuring about fifty works, the exhibition includes paintings, works on paper, ceramics, and sculptures, from public and private collections worldwide including Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France; The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, U.S.A; The National Gallery of Canada; The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan and other remarkable collections, both public and private.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says: “Never a conventional portrait painter, his radical, highly personal vision led to the creation of a group of works that are striking, moving and at times disturbing. Through paintings, prints, sculptures and ceramics the exhibition explores how he defined his own persona in his self-portraits and how he fashioned the images of friends, lovers and associates.”

Through his innovative use of colour and his interest in non-Western subject matter, including the numerous sitters he met in Polynesia, Gauguin’s approach and travels – a fundamental part of his inspiration – had a far-reaching influence on artists throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

In recent years, Gauguin’s life and art have increasingly come under scrutiny, especially the period he spent in South Polynesia. The exhibition confronts these ideas with intelligence, and discusses Gauguin‘s controversial relationships and behaviour. The exhibition examines the impact of colonialism through the prisms of contemporaneity.

Exhibition co-curator Christopher Riopelle comments: ‘I think of Gauguin as a very great artist for his formal inventiveness, for the richness of content in his art, which we have not yet plumbed, which we probably never will. At the same time, one of the evidences of his greatness is that he has become a focus for contemporary issues. We can’t help but think about the treatment of women and girls. We can’t help but think of some of his other bad behaviour, in contemporary terms. It means that he’s very much alive for us.’

Highlights include Young Christian Girl, 1894, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, a portrait made in Brittany of a young Breton woman in prayer shown wearing a Tahitian missionary dress. The juxtaposition of a Western model wearing a non-Western gown encapsulates Gauguin’s genius and innovations.

A selection of portraits in which Gauguin used symbolic objects, arranged into still lifes, to stand in for absent figures are also featured in the show. These surrogate portraits had been part of Gauguin’s repertoire from the 1880s, but this room shows how they took on increasing significance during the isolation of his later years. They include proxy portraits of Van Gogh, his former friend who had been dead for a decade, which depict the blooms from sunflower seeds sent from France (such as Sunflowers with ‘Hope’, 1901, Private Collection, Milan).

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Images: ‘Tehamana Has Many Parents’ (1893) © Art Institute of Chicago and Self portrait with Manao Tupapau, 1893-1894, Oil On Canvas, 46 x 38 cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France © Corbis