tue 19/02/2019

Collecting Gauguin, Courtauld Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Collecting Gauguin, Courtauld Gallery

Collecting Gauguin, Courtauld Gallery

Samuel Courtauld's staggering collection of Gauguins is second only to his Cézannes

Apprehensive: Gauguin's 'Nevermore', 1897 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

A one-room display at the Courtauld of seven paintings, a wall of woodcuts, some drawings and a sculpture by the passionate and volatile Gauguin: for all its modesty, this is a staggeringly powerful show, replete with exotic dreams and embodying the power of the artist’s lasting influence.

Exotic landscapes and primitive interiors are infiltrated by scenes of languorous naked women, the colour of milk chocolate, cross-legged on the floor, stretched on a couch, bathing in a pool, awkward odalisques, impassive goddesses or acquiescent mistresses. Gauguin was one of the ultimate escape artists, sacrificing remuneration (and his Danish wife and family) for the cause of art, and eventually even leaving Paris behind for the Caribbean and the South Seas. He protested against colonialism while subscribing to some romantic notions of the supposed honesty of “primitive” societies and succumbing to hard drinking and syphilis. He wrote to Strindberg that it was civilisation that made him suffer, that barbarism was rejuvenation. In the Marquesas Islands, he wrote, there is poetry, “and all you have to do to suggest it in painting is to surrender oneself to dreams”.

And dreams there are: while his most famous and largest allegorical painting, the perfectly titled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going? is in Boston, the Courtauld has the hypnotic Nevermore painted in Tahiti, its apprehensive, uneasy reclining woman surrounded by patterned cloths, two mysterious visitors who seem to be in intense discussion, all overseen by a crow, with a vast landscape surmounted by streaks of cloud just glimpsed through the windows. Te Rerioa (The Dream) (pictured above right) has more island landscape, a background for a highly decorated interior with symbolic murals on the walls, the whole a setting for two women, a cat and a baby, in enigmatic relationships.

Gauguin courageously attempted to address the weightiest of questions and themes. Nearly two decades after his death his son Pola oversaw the production of a magnificent series of wood engravings called Noa, Noa on a variety of spiritual themes, from an evocation of the spirits of the dead to the simple matter of the creation of the universe. The one unexpected oddity is the neo-classical signed portrait in marble of his young and beautiful wife Mette (pictured below); the assumption is that Gauguin modelled it, but that a master carved it. Either way, it is one of only two marbles he created.

The room housing this succinct exhibition is newly and convincingly painted the most brilliant deep turquoise the better to highlight the deep and resonantly colourful pictures and the range of black and white textures on the prints. The display also includes evidence of the works’ provenance – gallery invoices, an enthusiastic letter from the critic and artist Roger Fry, and a tribute to what now seems the terrific far-sightedness and altruistic philanthropy of Samuel Courtauld (1876-1945).

The Courtauld owns the most significant and largest collection of Gauguin in Britain; its five paintings are joined by two – a landscape of Martinique and Bathers at Tahiti. (The Cézanne collection, also the largest in Britain, is simply staggering.) Courtauld was purchasing for a decade from 1922 at a time when the Tate was busily turning down masterpiece after masterpiece, and only a few connoisseurs and critics were promoting avant-garde art from across the Channel. His photograph – an impeccably besuited plutocrat, formidably well groomed – presides over this current show. His individual taste has been our luck.

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