No man is a South Sea island

The myth of Gauguin - the syphilitic hero exiled in a sensual Eden - sells the artist short, argues David Sweetman
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The Independent Culture
One hundred years ago, in July 1895, Paul Gauguin left France for Tahiti never to return. For the next eight years, until his death on the remote Marquesas Islands, he continued to send back joyful paintings of his bare-breasted Vahines, the beautiful young Eves in his imaginary, exotic garden. These images of an impossibly coloured, sun-blessed, sensual paradise, established the legend of the heroic artist who cast off the shackles of work and family, to find love and creative freedom in the South Seas. That his last years were spent in humiliating poverty and incessant illness, until his miserable death from syphilis, just as he was about to be thrown into jail, has been largely ignored; the myth has won and with it has come a gross distortion of his artistic achievement. As long as his life in Polynesia could be seen as a heaven on earth, it was reasonable to assume that any paintings he made there must be his finest works. Earlier paintings, those done in Paris, Brittany and Martinique, were by definition mere trial pieces, only a preparation for the final flowering.

The new exhibition at the Royal Academy: From Manet to Gauguin: masterpieces from Swiss private collections, offers a rare chance to see superb works often hidden away in the homes of the rich, but does nothing to dispel that bias. Gauguin has seven canvases, stretching across the whole range of his career, but the solitary Tahitian work Nafea fasipoipo has been hung on a separate panel, jutting out into the gallery, the better to emphasise its otherness. It is a major work - probably a double-portrait of his child-bride Teha'amana, seated in a glade by a pool at the foot of Mount Orohena. The title, which can be translated as "When Will You Marry?", only adds to the seductive allure of a painting that was meant to tease a Parisian public stuck in its daily grind. Yet if one can tear one's eyes away from this beckoning image to the work nearby, there is another painting by Gauguin that offers less strident pleasures.

The painting, The Flute Player on the Cliff, is in one sense just that - a scene on the Brittany coast near Le Pouldu. Gauguin had moved there in 1889 when he could no longer tolerate the fashionable artistic crowd in Pont Aven where he had previously done so much work. Now he preferred the barren, windswept seaside hamlet, though we find little of that harshness in this painting. All is warmth and radiance - in the foreground is the cliff edge and leaning against a wall is the flute player who casts his music down the escarpment as if, like a snake-charmer, he is conjuring up the foaming Atlantic breakers. It is easy to trace the sources of this work. Gauguin was familiar with Monet's paintings of the sea at Belle- Ile, one of which, by a fortunate coincidence, is also included in the Royal Academy's exhibition. Gauguin's mind was also filled with the images of breaking waves and swirling shallows that he had seen in the Japanese prints that Van Gogh had shown him in Arles only a few months earlier. That visit had been a disaster, ending with the Dutchman's violent act of self-mutilation, but at least there had been Hokusai and Hiroshige and now they were carried over into The Flute Player.

This is no preparatory study - four years before Gauguin first saw Tahiti we have those same fantastical colours: strands of salmon flesh, cascades of acid apple, waves the colour of a baby's eyes, a russet stone like dried blood. The key to the painting has to be the nearby peasant woman, dressed in the traditional black bodice and light white cap of the region. She looks away, ignoring the sea below. She does not need to see the turbulent colours, she can hear the tone of the flute, for what Gauguin has painted is the music - those pinks and greens and blues and reds are his notes, their contrasts are dissonance and counterpoint the mark of his brush taps out the rhythm.

Gauguin had been preoccupied with the idea that painting could imitate the emotional effects of music since 1884, when an enforced stay with his wife's family in Copenhagen had left him with enough time on his hands to speculate about the direction his art should take. Frequently banished to the attic while his wife taught French to students from the Danish Foreign Office in the salon below, Gauguin began work on what he called his Notes synthetiques, a collection of thoughts that were to mark a significant break with the realist tradition that had come to dominate European art as the 19th century progressed. As Gauguin put it: "You may describe a tempest to me with talent - you will never succeed in conveying to me the sensation." The solution, he concluded, was to evoke sensation through colour, colour used emotively rather than descriptively, a revolution when even the supposedly avant-garde Impressionists were still operating within the naturalist ethos governing the Salon, a contradiction laid bare by the current exhibition at the Hayward, Landscapes of France: Impressionism and its rivals.

He was not alone - on his return to Paris, Gauguin found himself taken up by the Symbolists with their passion for the once-shunned Wagner. Wagnerism, with its cry for a union of all the arts, had no difficulty with Gauguin's notion of musical colour and with it an end to art as a window on the world. It fell to the ineptly name Post-Impressionists to break the mould. For the tragic Van Gogh, it was through the recreation in paint of his tortured inner world. For Gauguin, it was the transformation of nature into a score.

In much of Gauguin's Brittany work, this is an unstated element, playing in the background, but in The Flute Player it is brought centre stage by the presence of the musician, representing the artist, his plangent tune summoning up the sweeps of cerulean, the resonant swathes of lemon and charcoal. Not surprisingly, Gauguin had many friends among the composers of his day: Ravel, Delius, Greig, though perhaps the nearest in terms of their art has to be Debussy. He and Gauguin were effectively cousins, having been adopted by two brothers in the 1860s, and though their later lives were not close their work has many affinities, not least with the sea. Debussy's En bateau and Le jet d'eau were composed in the same year as The Flute Player, while his triumphant La Mer was written in the summer of 1903 just as news of Gauguin's death was brought back to France. For the cover of the first edition of his masterpiece, Debussy chose Hokusai's The hollow of the wave off Kanagawa. For his part, Gauguin's last paintings had been set on the shore of his final island home - but then, he had been a sailor in his youth and knew the sounds of a tempest better than most.

n From Manet to Gauguin: Royal Academy,, W1. To 13 Aug. Mon-Sun 10-6pm; Landscapes of France: Hayward Gallery SE1. To 13 Aug. Mon, Thur-Sun 10- 6, Tues, Wed 10-8.

n 'Paul Gauguin: a complete life', by David Sweetman, is published by John Curtis / Hodder Headline at pounds 25