Van Gogh's sometime friend Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a doomed, syphilitic dreamer of paradisal otherwheres which were conveniently located in French Polynesia and other French-speaking colonies. By turning the mysteries of Gauguin into an extended exercise in storytelling, Tate Modern has distastefully pandered to an appetite for prurience, and done the reputation of Gauguin the painter something of a disservice. By talking him through so thoroughly, they have partially succeeded in talking him out.
Blockbusters are always tricky things to bring off. When a painter reaches a certain level of popular and critical esteem, the public wants to know more and more. They want to strip off the mask, and peer deep into the life that made the work possible. They want to see not only the masterpieces, but also the sketches, the notebooks, the juvenilia. Their appetite reaches a level of near insatiability. This can be a dangerous road to travel. Not many artists are able to withstand such a level of scrutiny. There are simply not enough good works to justify all the attention. This is exactly the trap that Tate Modern has fallen into with this thoroughly modern retrospective.
The exhibition's story is that of a bourgeois Frenchman, a myth-maker, a teller of tall tales about himself, a relentless self-publicist, who goes native at the age of forty something. Why? Because Gauguin nurtured dreams of abandoning his large family and becoming a savage; of discovering a civilisation far from the competitive miseries of urban Paris, where all would be peace, innocence and staring at the sky, and where sex would be a timelessly uncomplicated mystery. This sounds like a crude story. It was a crude story. Once upon a time, when Gauguin first made an impact upon the British public soon after the turn of the 20th century, he was hailed for his experimentations as a painter; for his luxurious, non-naturalistic way with colour; for his decorative patterning in the Japanese manner; for flattening the picture plane in such a way as to suggest a kind of dreamy, timeless simultaneity. This exhibition manages almost to sideline those genuine reasons for admiring him.
Gauguin, like Van Gogh, came relatively late to painting. As a young man he was a stockbroker, an investor in art, a man of the world. The Impressionists co-opted him, but he felt uneasy in their company. All those nervy little dots simply didn't appeal to him. He yearned to break free from the recent past, to be unburdened by the tawdry sophistications of civilization, all that brash, noisy money-talk. He yearned, like the poet Rimbaud, to posture as an outlaw, a solitary, a primitive. (His dealer, Theo, Van Gogh's brother, described him as "half-Inca, half-European".) Yet he was always in restless conflict with himself, always in pursuit of his own, ever-shifting identity. The first gallery is full of self-portraits, and each one seems to reveal a slightly different man. The painter who appears in the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ of 1890 looks like a coarse-grained bruiser, a hard-drinking, hard-featured roustabout; a very different species of artist, much softer and more fine-featured, poses beside his easel in the self-portrait of 1885 like the most committed of Sunday painters.
The face, with its provocative jaw line, often seems to suggest that Gauguin was a much larger, more powerful physical presence than was the case. (He was 5ft 4ins tall, just a little taller than Van Gogh.) Gauguin's own vision of where painting might lead him first took him to Brittany, where he found vestiges of an older and simpler culture, imbued with the spirit of folklore. He paints the stiffly costumed Bretons solemnly, and hieratically, as if they are still alive in the Middle Ages.
When he arrived in Tahiti in 1891 for the first of two extended visits, he found that paradise had already gone. It had been corrupted by modernity: French manners, French religion. And so he had to invent a painted paradise instead, partly true and partly a synthesis of his own flights of fancy. These images of Tahiti are his finest works, and yet there are not too many of them, and they don't ring too many changes. His paintings are a combination of naivety and sophistication. He co-opts and refashions an entire pantheon of alarming local gods – seen at their best in Oviri, a large ceramic piece of 1894 – in order to estrange and frighten the onlooker. (Though a virulent anti-catholic, he was keen on sacred themes.) These gods are often present in the paintings. They wait in the background, meaning much in terms of atmosphere, and little in other respects. Gauguin adds strange inscriptions which say nothing to us other than: look at me, I am strange, so unlike you...
The result is that the paintings are both simple and complicated, suggesting much, but holding back even more. Gauguin's women are generally lolling, crouching or supine, and they are set against a landscape which often fades off to the most sweetly touching of moody twilights. Amongst the most striking of these is Nevermore O Tahiti of 1897, which also incorporates the title of a doom-laden poem by Edgar Allen Poe. (At its best, Gauguin's way with colour, his musical harmonising of pinks and greens and yellows and blues, is ravishing in its sensuous appeal.) These women seldom seem to be in motion. They embody some inscrutable quality of mystery. Something religious perhaps. Something deeply sexual perhaps. They don't smile. They don't engage with us. When they look at all, they look askance. They are infinitely sad for reasons that we can only guess at. What we are aware of is the male gaze looking at them. There is menace in this gaze, but it is not the declared menace of a Sickert. Gauguin was mindful of the sensitivities of Parisian collectors.
Gauguin was no innocent when it came to calculating his impact upon the art world. The postal service between French Polynesia and Paris worked with admirable efficiency. He was very fond of giving his works mystifying titles, which would often include words in Tahitian that he only partially understood. When the first of his Tahitian paintings came back to Europe to go on exhibition in Copenhagen, he asked his Danish wife to ensure that the titles of the works appeared in Tahitian only. Which meant that the works were relatively incomprehensible. So these paintings were acts of storytelling, but only in part. Like parables, they were calculated as much to withhold as to proffer meaning. They were deliberate acts of mystification, exotic offerings tailor-made for sophisticated European audiences.
The life ended sadly. After his death in 1903, there was an auction of his effects. His sewing machine sold for 80 francs – 40 times more than one of his canvases. A young ship's doctor and writer, Victor Segalen, had been travelling to see him. He bought up a great deal of Gauguiniana, and devoted much of the rest of his life to transforming the Gauguin story into the stuff of legend. Gauguin's friend, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, said this of him: "It is so extraordinary that one can put so much mystery into so much brilliance." Mallarmé was easily the most obscure French poet of the 19th century. It takes one to know one.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth, Tate Modern, London SE1 ( www.tate.org.uk) 30 September to 16 JanuaryReuse content