A fresh look at Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin's "Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)," 1888, oil on canvas. Paul Gauguin's "Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)," 1888, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Scotland, National Gallery of Art / March 13, 2011

Many artists and historians look on the painter Paul Gauguin as one of the founders of modern art. His work in the 19th century brimmed with innovation. He tried to paint with his mind rather than his eyes. He colored grass red and figures of Christ yellow. He played with perspective. His obsession with primitive peoples engaged and influenced Picasso.

Yet, as Gauguin specialist Belinda Thomson points out, the innovations that excited everyone 100 years ago "are not necessarily those that have the strongest appeal" in the 21st century. Old innovations do not surprise anyone; they turn into clichés instead. Gauguin's paintings must be regarded differently now. They must be examined, Thomson says, for "their beauty and complexity."

Thomson, an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh, has put together an exhibition that celebrates Gauguin not as a prophet of modern art but as a painter of beautiful and complex canvases. The show, called "Gauguin: Maker of Myth," has opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after a long and popular run at the trendsetting Tate Modern in London. Closing in Washington on June 5, it will be seen nowhere else.

Thomson was joined as co-curator in Washington by Mary Morton, the National Gallery's curator of French paintings. Their exhibition demonstrates how Gauguin spun myths — often lies — about himself and his exotic travels to excite interest in his paintings and sculptures.

The show, in fact, does nothing to enhance the personal reputation of the painter. The art historian Paul Johnson, while extolling Gauguin's work and idealism, once described him as "a self-indulgent scoundrel," and there is much evidence for this on view at the National Gallery. But his egoism and gnarled spirit add much complexity to his paintings.

Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 but spent much of his life outside France. His father was a political journalist, his mother the daughter of Flora Tristan, a well-known French socialist and feminist. When Gauguin was an infant, his family fled France after the failure of the leftist revolution in 1848 and took refuge in Peru. Through Flora Tristan, whose mother had been Spanish, the Gauguins had relatives in Peru. These relatives would cause Gauguin to boast years later that he had Inca blood, but there was no truth to this.

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