by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Self Portrait with Yellow Christ by Gauguin, 1890-91

Portraits of the artist

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 November 2019


Hardly any of Gauguin's self portraits were exhibited in his lifetime, so they were known only to a handful of fellow artists, friends and critics. Equally, many of his portraits of others remain unfamiliar to a wide public to this day. Yet, as revealed in a show at the National Gallery, the first-ever exhibition devoted to this aspect of his oeuvre, featuring some fifty of his paintings, sculptures, ceramics, drawings and prints, they played a central role in the restless development of his art and are extraordinarily revealing of the nature of the man and what he was striving to achieve.

Paul Gauguin was born in France in 1848 of French and Spanish-Peruvian parentage and, having served in the French Merchant Marine, worked as a stockbroker. It was not until he was in his mid thirties that he transformed himself from an amateur painter into a professional artist. He began this new career as an impressionist, but soon sought to create new forms of modernist art.

There was a boom in portrait painting in Paris during the second half of the 19th century, thanks to a burgeoning demand from an expanding bourgeoisie, and some of its most successful exponents became wealthy as a result. At various stages of his career - both while in France and even during his sojourns in the Pacific - Gauguin pinned his hopes on gaining recognition and making a regular income from portraiture. But, as this fascinating exhibition, curated by Cornelia Homburg and Christopher Riopelle, demonstrates, Gauguin was never able to compromise his determination to forge a new style with the expectations of the prevailing market for the genre.

Indeed, the only 'conventional' portrait in the current show is the opening work, a self portrait of the artist in his attic studio, of 1885, still strongly under the influence of his then mentors, the impressionists Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. This period marked a turning point in his artistic development. For in his self portraits, he began to take on various guises - casting himself as Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, or a Christ-like figure and outcast suffering for his devotion to his art - and his portraits of others became heavily laden with symbolic elements, sometimes relating to the sitter's own life but often to their particular relationship with Gauguin himself. So, thereafter, a Gauguin portrait was never simply a portrait in the conventional sense.

This was also the period when Gauguin began to go in search of unspoiled, more traditional, more authentic and seemingly more spiritual communities in which to immerse himself - a pursuit that was to occupy him until his death in the South Pacific in 1903. This took him to Brittany, to the Caribbean, to Provence to work side by side with Van Gogh, to Tahiti and then back to Brittany again. It was at Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu on the Breton coast that he elaborated his theory of synthetism: a method of painting from memory, synthesizing colour and form while capturing the personal response of the artist to the subject in a manner radically differing from both impressionism and realism. But Gauguin failed to recruit the equally original Van Gogh, who continued to insist on painting directly from nature, to his new credo.

Even before travelling to the Pacific, Gauguin began to depict himself as divided between civilized and 'savage' societies and cultures - the classic expression of this being his 'Self Portrait with Yellow Christ' (1890-91), on show here. In this he places himself between a wooden crucifix (which can still be found in a peaceful rural chapel near Pont-Aven and which he had used in a previous painting evoking simple Breton piety) and the grotesque 'Anthropomorphic Pot' (a self-portrait ceramic inspired by pre-Colombian Mexican vessels, on loan here from Paris).

This ceramic is one of a number of highly expressive sculptures by the artist in clay or wood included in the exhibition. Gauguin used these media for creating some of his most remarkable exercises in portraiture of others, notably the wood-carving of his friend the artist Meijer de Haan.

Gauguin was an early admirer of what would then have been regarded as 'primitive' sculpture, both in Brittany and the Pacific, frequently introducing statues and objects drawn from these cultures into the paintings he made in these remote parts of the world.

In one outstanding painting here, his portrait of a 'Young Christian Girl' (1894) not only takes on a sculptural quality in the simplicity of the pose and depiction of the hands but also combines, with remarkable daring, elements from Breton and Polynesian culture. For he depicts the Breton girl not in local costume but in a bright yellow 'missionary dress' (introduced by Christian evangelicals into the Pacific to hide the nakedness of the scantily attired local girls and women), which the artist had clearly brought back with him.

Thus he brings together two of the most essential strands in his intense artistic enterprise to combine the traditional and the spiritual with a new and profoundly innovative manner of painting.

Gauguin Portraits; National Gallery, London; 7 October 2019 - 26 January 2020

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024