A long way from Brittany: Paul Gauguin's "Nevermore O Tahiti" (1897)
In 1902, Gauguin, penniless, syphilitic and dying, wrote to correspondents back in France that he wanted to end his sensual idyll in French Polynesia and return to the land of his birth. He was dissuaded by his friend Daniel de Monfreid: "You are at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth." To come back, de Monfreid suggested, would be to destroy the legend. So Gauguin stayed on the far side of the world and died the following year. And his legend has indeed proved immortal.
The painter in the guise of an atavistic mystic is the main strand examined in Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern (until January 16) — with some 150 paintings, prints, sculptures, ceramics and letters it is the largest show of his work on these shores for 50 years. The other myth he made, or rather treated, was of course that of the fables and spirituality of both the Western world and the Tahitian.
There was something self-conscious, almost cynical, in the way Gauguin went about forging his public image as a savage-sage. From 1871 to 1885, he was, for all his interest in avant-garde painting, a solid member of the bourgeoisie. He was married, had five children and worked as a stockbroker in both Copenhagen and Paris. Nothing mythical there. It was only when his friendship with the Impressionists prompted him to become a professional painter that, with a very contemporary self-promoting sassiness, he started to work on his outsider image.
As he began to dress up — in a Magyar cloak, Breton waistcoat and astrakhan fez — he also began to talk up his Peruvian and Spanish ancestry and hand out photographs of himself to acquaintances. He started to dismiss Paris with its cliques and critics and extol the moral purity of untainted civilisations. He also ruthlessly abandoned his family. "I am a great artist and I know it," he declared.
His painting, however, was not an act. His first port of call was unexotic Brittany. "I find there the savage, the primitive," he wrote. "When my clogs resound on the granite soil, I hear the muffled, dull powerful tone that I'm after in painting." He found too an authentic and ancient spirituality which meant that he could portray a wayside Calvary as an almost pagan totem (The Yellow Christ, 1889) or stumble across Jacob wrestling the angel watched by cows and a crowd of women in starched white Breton headdresses (Vision after the Sermon, 1888). With bright slabs of colour and bold black outlines he was not, like his Impressionist friends, interested in exploring a new way of painting reality but in depicting something deeper than mere surface appearances; a different reality, profound and unseen.