Monday, May 30, 2011

Gaugin: Maker of Myth

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through June 5, 2011

This show has gained a certain amount of notoriety lately, as a result of a mad woman's attempt to attack one of the paintings on display. Thankfully, she did no lasting damage to the piece, which is now back on display.

For myself, I came away with as much of a sense of Gaugin as a person as I did of Gaugin as a painter. The description of him at the beginning of the show calls him "ferociously egotistical" - a point born out by the many self-portraits in the first room.

I was gratified when looking at the description of "Portrait of Meijer de Haan by Lamplight" to see him called devilish - exactly the word I'd thought of myself when looking at the piece. Clearly, I've got a future as an art critic!

My sense that I would not have cared to meet Gaugin came when looking at his wood carving, "Self-portrait vase in the form of a severed head." I could only think, "oh brother." It just seemed so self-indulgent and hysterical.

Gaugin identified greatly with "savages" - people outside of polite Western society. While spending time in Brittany, he began to reject Western civilization as corrupt, but still concerned himself with how much his art was fetching in Paris - so the civilization is bad, but not the money it brings in.

As I mentioned above, the painting that had been attacked is back on display - there's a rope in front of it now, along with a guard. As I looked at the piece, in a room filled with other Gaugins, I was reminded of seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It is encased in a clear box, with ropes around it, to foil thieves, meanwhile, the rest of the room is filled with other da Vincis, with no such security. Interesting how those who would steal or attack art determine what pieces we protect the most...

I was puzzled as to why the crazy lady found that particular painting so objectionable. There are any number of similar works in the exhibit. There's a carving that's even entitled "Lewdness" and features a naked woman, a wilted flower (a symbol of lost purity) and a fox. You'd think she would have hurled herself at that.

I was intrigued by the painted "Still Life with Three Puppies," as I don't think I've ever seen puppies in a still life before. Having raised a puppy, I don't remember a lot of stillness.

As for his time in Tahiti, Gaugin decried Western influences on the native society, and I'm sure they were not all for the good. Since they did lead to the elimination of human sacrifice, however, I can't say that it was all bad either. Gaugin imagined a Tahitian past and then painted what he imagined; one could make the case that this is his Western influence at work.

All in all, Gaugin seems a tiresome person, but he did expose the hypocrisy of a local bishop who decried Gaugin's womanizing, while engaging in some of his own, so I'll give him credit for that.

Verdict: if you're a fan of Gaugin, don't miss this show. It's quite large, so you'll need to move quickly to take it all in.

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