There are many aspects of Paul Gauguin's life and work for which he can be reverentially remembered: his extensive travels, his experimentalism and his "primitivist" painting style honed in Tahiti – a bold reaction against the Impressionism embraced by most of his French contemporaries.
Yet there is also a more roguish legacy left by the painter – which successors such as Pablo Picasso and the Bloomsbury Group artists adopted with gusto. The Paris-born Gauguin was a true bohemian who rejected the conventions of bourgeois French society to create the bulk of his oeuvre on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti in the late 19th century.
He conducted his personal life with the same spirit of adventure, sleeping with the models who posed for his paintings and setting up a home with a young Tahitian woman in an arrangement that left him just short of becoming a bigamist.
He was still married to his Danish wife, Mette-Sophie Gad, with whom he had lived for more than 10 years and fathered five children, when he left for pastures new in 1891. A year later in Tahiti, he met the young, beautiful Teha'amana, whom he swiftly enlisted as his model, muse, and lover for the next two years.
While he did not officially marry her, there appears to have been an exchange of vows, of sorts. She was aged 13 – then considered a marriageable age, while he was 43. He was, during this period, still very much married to Gad, sending her the first batch of paintings from Tahiti to present in Copenhagen, where she was living with their children. She did, however, stop writing to him by 1894.
Gauguin returned to Paris for two years in 1894, but went back a second time to Tahiti, moving on to at least two other indigenous Polynesian girls and having sexual relationships with a number of the models who posed for him. Two of these subsequently bore his children, as did a third woman in Paris with whom he had an illegitimate child during his interim stay there.
A host of free-spirited artists in the intervening decades after Gauguin's death in 1903 were inspired by his sprawling, unconventional relationships. They included some of London's 1920s bohemia, the Bloomsbury circle, and the Spanish painter, Picasso.
Belinda Thomson, chief curator of a major new exhibition of Gauguin's work at Tate Modern in London – the first to be staged in Britain for more than 50 years, with numerous works that have never been seen in this country before – said artists such as Pablo Picasso, who fathered children by three different women and had model-muse affairs, picked up the idea from Gauguin.
"Teha'amana was much younger than [Gauguin] and their ability to enjoy anything like a marriage was extremely limited," said Ms Thomson. "They couldn't even speak the same language. It was not an equal relationship, and it wasn't a clear cut professional relationship ... He justified his children by saying that Tahiti always welcomed [the birth of] children. They were something to be celebrated.
"Picasso took quite a lot of licence from Gauguin's life. In post-Victorian Britain, Gauguin's art as a whole was tied up with idea of freer ways of living. The Bloomsbury Group 'celebrated' Gauguin's freedoms."
However, the show, which is entitled Gauguin: Maker of Myth and opens on 30 September, attempts to portray the artist not just as a technical innovator who epitomised the idea of the artist as romantic adventurer, but as a man who exploited the artist-muse relationship to its greatest possible extent and who loved to present manipulated versions of life in his art, rather than to document the social reality he found.
Gauguin spent his early childhood in Peru with his journalist father and half Peruvian mother. Joining the merchant navy at 17, he travelled for six years, visiting South America and Scandinavia. In 1871 he joined a Paris stockbrokers, seeming every bit the upstanding member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, and married two years later, painting only in his spare time.
Yet in 1883, with five children to support, he resigned from his job and became determined to pursue an artistic career. From 1886, Gauguin became increasingly disenchanted with Paris and worked mainly in Brittany. Frustrated by a lack of recognition at home and financially destitute, he finally sailed to the tropics to escape European civilisation and "everything that is artificial and conventional."
Even before he landed in Tahiti, he had made several attempts to find a tropical paradise where he could "live on fish and fruit" and paint in his increasingly primitive style. He had lived, for a short time, in Martinique and worked as a labourer on the Panama Canal construction (although he proved to be no good at this type of work – he was dismissed from his job after only two weeks). Apart from two further years in France after leaving Europe for Tahiti in 1891, the remainder of his life was spent in the South Seas. He found himself inspired by Tahiti's tropical flora and fauna, and its fast-disappearing Maori culture, ritual and myths, which he felt compelled to capture on canvas.
Yet the Tate's new exhibition reveals that, rather than capturing the reality of what he saw in the region, Gauguin preferred to depict a profoundly exoticised Tahiti, conjured squarely from a colonial master's imagination and reinforcing, to some extent, stereotypical portraits of the island.
"The old Tahiti was a more powerful idea for him. He was disappointed to find that European missionaries had been at work for a long time before he got there, and so, instead of luscious young Tahitian girls, he found women dressed up to their necks in smocks, attending church every Sunday," said Ms Thomson.
The artist had long explored the idea of mythologising ordinary people of the soil, even in the paintings of European peasants he produced earlier in his career in Brittany, she added. "He created a fiction about Brittany which corresponded with what people believed about Brittany."
Living in Mataiea Village in Tahiti, Gauguin began painting depictions of Tahitian life as he imagined it – a kind of bucolic idyll largely lacking the presence of modern-day elements, such as the many Christian missionaries that had travelled there from the West. Despite being a European, he instinctively sided with the native people, clashing with the colonial authorities and with the Catholic Church on more than one occasion.
In 1903, he had an altercation with the Church and government which earned him a three-month prison sentence and a fine. But before he could begin his jail term he died of syphilis at the age of 54, his body broken by alcohol and long years of dissipation.
Reality, mythology, fiction, and the blurred boundaries in between, extended themselves to his writing. Noa Noa, his semi-fictional travel memoirs and traditional island stories which he claimed to have gleaned from Teha'amana's ancient tribal lore, turned out to be copied from a textbook of Polynesian life. Years later, Picasso acquired a copy and, as an avid admirer, annotated various memorable sections.
A different kind of self-mythologising took place in Gauguin's religious paintings. As a friend of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, Gauguin had discussed with him the biblical story of Christ in the Garden of Olives, which describes Jesus at the moment when he is abandoned or betrayed by his disciples.
Van Gogh told Gauguin he hoped to paint this scene – which he subsequently did, but destroyed the work halfway through. In an effort to compete with his friend, Gauguin also painted the scene, depicting himself as Christ, but with a reddish beard reminiscent of that sported by Van Gogh. The painting is a prime example of Gauguin's complex personality and his taste for adopting various guises – that of victim, saint, sinner, and most bizarrely, Christ-like martyr.
"As an artist, he identified with Christ and Christ's suffering," said Ms Thomson, adding: "It was a fairly extreme myth he created about himself."
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