Artist or monster? Mammoth new Gauguin show reckons with colonial legacy – with limited success

What to do with a problem like Paul Gauguin? The 19th-century French master’s radical experiments with color, space, and syncretic symbolism have made him a canonical artist. Yet it is “Gauguin the monster”—not “Gauguin the artist”—who takes up most of the oxygen in today’s discussions. It is Gauguin—purveyor of primitivist fantasies, symbol of French colonialism in the Pacific, and pedophile, syphilitic sex tourist who took child brides as young as 13—who looms large in the public consciousness.

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The National Gallery of Australia has clearly been grappling with this legacy in the run-up to its blockbuster winter exhibition, Gauguin’s World: Tōna Iho, Tōna Ao. This is the first major exhibition of Gauguin in Australia, featuring more than 130 works by the artist from collections around the world.

The show’s curator, Henri Loyrette—former director of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée du Louvre in Paris—has clearly done a lot of bureaucratic work to acquire the artworks. The show represents an incredible effort and a remarkable achievement. For almost any other artist, the NGA would do an unconditional victory lap. Instead, the gallery finds itself in an ambiguous situation of mixed messages, oscillating between jubilation, ambivalence and polemic.

Some of this messaging is aimed directly at Pacific artists. A podcast accompanying the exhibition begins with the question, “What immediately comes to mind when I say Paul Gauguin?”, with the response, “Argh!” Over four episodes, the podcast positions Gauguin as a productive—if deeply charged—challenge to reckoning with historical legacies rather than a figure of blind cancellation.

This is confirmed in the space leading directly into the Gauguin exhibition. Here, Gauguin’s unique story gives way to a dialogue in the form of artist Rosanna Raymond’s 2024 collaborative work SaVĀge K’lub: Te Paepae Aora’i – Where the Gods Cannot Be Fooled, a physically and symbolically imposing installation that soars high into the gallery walls. First conceived in 2010, SaVĀge K’lub takes its name from 19th-century London gentlemen’s clubs, where, as Raymond explains, “they parodied indigenous cultures.” Presenting a rich diversity of Pacific works from both the NGA’s historical collection and the SaVĀge K’lub collective, the installation almost overwhelms your vision, transforming a space of parody into a space of celebration.

Raymond’s intervention ends where the Gauguin exhibition begins. In the typical style of a monographic exhibition, the French artist’s name is heroically displayed at the entrance to the institution and the exhibition. The possessive title of the show could not be clearer: we are entering “Gauguin’s world”.

The first room is filled with Gauguin’s self-portraits. In Self-Portrait with the Yellow Christ (dated 1890-91), Gauguin is depicted next to a painted image of Jesus. In the next work, the painting Self-Portrait (at Golgotha) from 1896, he is dressed in white robes and has an existential gaze, continuing his canonization. However, it is the last painting, Portrait of the Artist by Himself from 1903 – made in the year of his death – that has the most dimension and depth, despite the thin layers of paint.

Here, white canvas and blue underpainting occasionally peek through the surface of the work, threatening to collapse the fragile painted illusion and the artist’s image. But while there is diversity in these portraits, their composite configuration ultimately unites them in reproducing a well-worn art historical trope, presenting Gauguin as the canonical protagonist whose psychology is to be contemplated and fetishized by all passers-by.

In the next room, Gauguin disappears, along with his charged symbolism and obsessive chromatic experimentation. Instead, we find ourselves looking at some of his earliest works, rendered in a muted palette, and with an impressionistic style. Several pieces recall Camille Pissarro: Landscape , 1873, and Apple Trees at the Hermitage , 1879. In both, Gauguin feels absent. It’s a smart curatorial move to begin with the atypical and the sedate, as the artistic innovation in the rest of the show feels all the more powerful and pronounced.

The next rooms take a “material turn” and foreground art techniques: ceramics, prints and woodcarving. Here the exhibition does not quite adhere to its own loudly proclaimed signposting. Half of the works in the Gauguin and Printmaking section are not prints; ceramics also take up a relatively modest portion of the Gauguin and Ceramics room. I saw barely three monotypes in Gauguin, Woodcarving and Monotypes.

The process-driven titles of the rooms are a kind of curatorial ploy. They represent a deception that keeps the gallery visitor’s mind on the much safer idea of ​​technique and makes them forget about the man who produces the work.

The final two rooms of the exhibition focus most explicitly on Gauguin’s time in French Polynesia, and are treated with a remarkably light touch. The curatorial texts acknowledge the artist’s colonial or predatory legacy but do not engage with it in depth, leaving a viewer trapped in the seductions of Gauguin’s brush. Make no mistake, his works – the 1899 masterpiece Three Tahitians, above all – pull you with their sheer aesthetic genius. The problem is that in the space of that same genius, Gauguin fixates on a primitivist fantasy, which depicts Tahiti as a mythical land, trapped in a pre-modern Edenic state.

The last work I see as I leave the exhibition is Gauguin’s 1898 painting Tahitian Woman II.. It makes me pause. Not because of the quality of the painting, but because of the pose. Gauguin has taken and reversed the pose of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1814 orientalist fantasy, Grande Odalisque, which depicts a nude woman in a Middle Eastern harem.

Loaded with sexual connotations and ideas about owning the imagined otherIngres’s painting is one of the most famous works of art hanging in the Louvre—a work that hangs in the curator’s old studio and with which he would no doubt be intimately familiar. Yet Gauguin’s striking reference to this fantasy and its sexual politics is not mentioned on the nearby wall plaque, which provides only the painting’s title and date. Here, omission takes the place of critical commentary.

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