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Art Reveals Gauguin’s Provocative Personality

Forget Tahiti’s tropical palm trees and aqua-colored water. The new Paul Gauguin show at the National Gallery of Art delivers sex, scandal and severed heads.

“Gauguin: Maker of Myth” showcases about 100 works by the artist in every medium, period and genre. Gauguin, the late-19th-century artist best known for his Tahitian paintings, comes across as a provocative and inventive storyteller. Gauguin’s reputation may not be at its height right now — a rare still-life painting recently failed to sell at auction — but this show will convert anyone doubting his brilliance. It vividly presents the intensity and beauty of his art in a new light.

“Part of the ambition of the show was to dispel the notion that it was Tahiti that made Gauguin a significant painter,” guest curator Belinda Thomson said. “So the selection aims to provide a holistic exploration of an artist who is very much still part of the French avant-garde when he created, in tandem, his radically simplified style and his elusive, enigmatic poetic subjects.”

The galleries present his works thematically, a strategy that departs from the chronological surveys typically used in single-artist exhibitions. This freedom allows viewers to explore the narratives and legends Gauguin created, rather than focus on stylistic and technical changes. It’s a remarkable and risky move, but one that pays off brilliantly.

The first room features Gauguin as a mythic artist. His life story — quitting his stockbroker job, befriending Vincent van Gogh and traveling to Tahiti — is well-known, but the focus here is the invention of his personal mythology. He identified himself as savage, crafting an image of himself as a wild, primitive outsider. In his striking self-portraits, he is an artist constantly in opposition with himself — both free and civilized, playful and suffering, Christ and devil.

This duplicity resonates in his 1889 “Self-Portrait,” in which he splits the canvas with stark colors to picture himself as a saint adorned with a halo and a sinner tempted by forbidden fruit. Yet his mythic creation as an oppressed, savage outsider finds its most shocking expression in another work. In a stoneware vase, Gauguin physically divides himself — the vase is his severed head, dripping with blood. 

The sculpture underscores one of the real gifts of the exhibition. Rather than simply focusing on Gauguin’s famously lush paintings, “Maker of Myth” gives visitors a chance to see his sculptures, woodcuts and prints. And because of the narrative thread carried in the show, the installation highlights references and elements that a casual museumgoer might miss. Viewers, for example, can easily trace his fascination with the devil from his depiction of a friend as a cloven-hoofed creature to his own self-representation as a carved, horned devil.

And for all the severed heads and devil surprises, Tahiti — and its women — still exists as the central mythic creation of Gauguin’s life. Yet even in a seemingly serene, romanticized tropical image, Gauguin creates a sense of mystery. The work, “No te aha oe riri (Why Are You Angry?)” depicts a peaceful village, but the title suggests there is ambiguity afoot in the otherwise-idyllic scene. 

Gauguin’s women aren’t merely idealized Tahitian beauties. His stoneware sculpture of “Oviri,” a savage goddess, dominates the room. Macabre at its best, it’s a bloodstained sculpture of a woman choking a wolf cub with her hands as she crushes another wolf at her feet.

But there’s more than just the bloody and bizarre on display. Several of the selected works bring to light Gauguin’s particular brand of humor and sassiness. The doorway into the final room is lined by the carved panels from Gauguin’s last home, which he called his Maison du Jouir, or House of Pleasure. The façade offers a special message to his neighbors — and particularly the local clergy — as he embraces his scandalous reputation by calling his house a bordello. It’s a forceful reminder of the way Gauguin’s obsession with myth-making dominated not just his art, but also his life.

From the innovative set-up to the incredible range of works on display, this stunning exhibition masterfully showcases Gauguin’s artistry. It’s a sensuous, mysterious and hedonistic world the “Maker of Myth” envisioned — and one that demands a visit.

“Gauguin: Maker of Myth” will be on view through June 5. The National Gallery of Art is the sole U.S. venue and will host several lectures and concerts associated with the exhibition.

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