The Guardian reviewer was disappointed in the new Gauguin exhibition at the National Gallery – he was “frustrated” (his word) by the lack of nude Tahitian women, accusing the gallery of “prudery” and even “censorship”.
I don’t know much about art, but I do know that a well-curated exhibition (which this is) tells a story and is necessarily selective. The aspect of Gauguin’s work that involves nudes (non-white and often young) is certainly one that needs exploring, but, might well have been a distraction in this particular context.
In a 1975 interview, John Lennon observed, referencing Dylan, that, whatever he thought he was writing about in his songs, he was really writing about himself. Gauguin takes a similar line – he thought that things could only be presented from a personal point of view which could include experiences, memories, cultural heritage dreams and emotions.
The theme of the exhibition is portrait – an intrinsically personal subject and opens with self-portraits painted in Paris, moving outwards both geographically and socially through family and friends to Brittany and Alsace, where Gauguin began the search for more “primitive” cultures, then on to Tahiti and, ultimately, the Marquesas Islands.
The exhibition is very much more that just pictures of people. “Portraits” appear in a range of media – Gauguin worked impressively in pottery, metal and wood as well as paint and charcoal and they go well beyond simple likenesses.
Gauguin’s life journey also took him increasingly towards the symbolic – so-called “substitute portraits”, for example, include a vase of sunflowers as a memory of Van Gogh – and the mythological.
I thought that it worked well – the curators decided what story to tell and stuck to their brief. Maybe it didn’t satisfy the Guardian critic, but it’s aimed at the public, not specialists. I saw a lot of interesting work, learnt something about art and the artist and came away with questions and a desire to learn more and go back for another look.
Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery until 26th January 2020
John Lennon, interview on The Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC, first broadcast 18th April 1975