Today, on holiday, I went to see the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern (a gallery, I confess, to cordially loathing) and, amongst the milling crowds, there he was arraigned in a developing glory of colour.
It is the Tahitian paintings that hold the popular imagination - voluptuous women, sometimes tinged with androgyny, languidly rest or languidly live or languidly labour! Often in these paintings there is an element to disconcert - death watches over a sleeping woman a raven inspects a lying body and an idol (from Gauguin's reinvention of Tahitian myth) obtrudes into a domestic scene. You are asked to imagine (by the painter) that a complex symbolism is at work but Gauguin's fails to convince as an intellectual painter. There is something forced, partial and radically incomplete in his vision.
This is, I think, primarily because he never actually understood 'his' place: Tahiti. It remained closed to him and his imagination has not submitted itself to the discipline of actually loving and knowing this place. That he is a great painter in spite of this is because he both paints more than he knows and because of his experiments in colour - bringing a world into being through force of intuition: a world that is luxurious and mysterious (even if a mystery that does not warrant too close inspection).
However, the paintings I most deeply love are those grounded in Brittany. Here I think Gauguin does succeed in entering a place and a culture and submit to the discipline of trying to convey more than a fantasy of it. His Breton peasants are more earthed and real than his Tahitian women and they inhabit
a culture that was closer to Gauguin's own. They refuse to be exotic even when the paintings take a supernatural direction. Their God is theirs (not Gauguin's re imagining) and His suffering and dying is a reflection of their hard lives, lived without much consideration of resurrection.
As here in his 'Green Christ', the foreground is a realistic peasant woman, bent at her labour, and behind her three abstracted figures bear Christ down from the Cross. Gauguin seems to imply both that the vision of Christ emerges from the life of the foregrounded peasant's own imagined culture, it is in some essential way real, and that yet for the painter it remains symbolic.
Yet here, in what I think is Gauguin's greatest painting, 'Jacob wrestles with the Angel' the two worlds seamlessly cohere - the peasants look on at a wrestling match where one of the figures may be winged - the struggle of two lives evokes the struggle of a community's life that evokes the struggle of Jacob to wrestle God's blessing.
It is the first painting I ever 'saw' as a fifteen year old visiting a gallery for the first time and it has lost none of the power of my first love. It is, I think, a great work of 'religious' art precisely because it grows out of an authentic culture of religiosity that the artist genuinely submits to. He neither imposes his own view or juxtaposes it (as so often elsewhere), he allows it to speak and in speaking is transformed through his vision into a genuine whole.
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