So, I went along to the Tate’s big Gauguin show the other day… which to be honest was slightly disappointing. Not least because nothing seemed very surprising; I wouldn’t have said I knew Gauguin’s work very well, and I would have expected to learn more or see something new, but not really.
Obviously I hadn’t seen every piece of work before, although quite a few of them had turned up in previous exhibitions, like ‘From Russia’ or ‘Rebels and Martyrs’, or were from the Tate or the Courtauld anyway. But even those which were new to me generally felt like more of the same. Not just because he developed a fairly distinctive style and stuck to it, but because his hit rate isn’t that great: the best of his paintings are genuinely gorgeous things, but they seem to be heavily outnumbered by ones which are just a bit underwhelming.
And at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine: they are also disappointingly small. I think one reason they are almost work better in reproduction is that you can see a photograph and imagine the original painting as a large, impressive piece, when in reality they are rather small and cramped. I guess I wouldn’t expect him to be painting huge, wall-filling canvases in his hut in Tahiti, but fair or not, that was my reaction.
There is also of course the uneasy politics of the work: Gauguin was a colonial sex tourist who painted the Tahitians in his own version of traditional Polynesian myths, even though they had in fact long since converted to Christianity. One myth is as good as another as far as I’m concerned, but the fact he completely ignored the reality of Tahitian life in favour of preconceived images of the innocent noble savage, even while living with his thirteen-year old ‘wife’ — it’s all a bit icky.
Since this review has been so negative, I guess I should reiterate: I still think the best of his work is pretty great. I just didn’t enjoy the exhibition as much as I thought I might.