After travelling half-way around the world to visit Tahiti and the Marquesas, and visiting both museums to Paul Gauguin there but having seen hardly any artefacts attributable to the old vagabond himself, I finally got to see some of his pictures at the exhibition back here in London at the Tate Modern at what used to be Bankside power station, just down the river from my home here.
The contrast was huge between my memories of the tropical heat of Hiva Oa and Tahiti with small, slightly primitive, towns claiming land from the tropical forests and volcanic mountains and the square brick that used to be an electricity factory converting coal to electricity, and visiting it on a freezing winter's day. The building was cold and I didn't warm to it! I last went inside the building when it was still a power station, on an engineering visit from work. Then it was noisy and slightly smelly but certainly not cold.
It was interesting to finally see a good collection of Paul Gauguin's pictures, some of which were of frozen scenes in Brittany and some of the tropical paradise where he ended his days, in a way that some felt was disgraceful. The effect on me of the experience was depressing. His best work seemed to me to be the wood cuts not the paintings. His work in wood is detailed and he achieves the distillation which he was seeking as an artist. But paintings sell, particularly paintings of half-naked Polynesian women, so presumably he went to sending back to Paris that which would pay his bills. In modern speak, he became trapped by his personal brand. His images suffer greatly when reproduced and seeing the actual paint was an almost physical relief after becoming familiar with so many poor reproductions: too gaudy, too dark and so on. Yes he did know what he was doing with paint but he was so much better with wood, either directly or as a medium for printing images.
The gallery experience was also depressing, the hushed hallowed halls of the Tate Modern in winter are a far cry from his torrid tropical House of Pleasure of Atuona, Hiva Oa! There were the people studiously following the learned guide on the rather snazzy electronic tablets, spending as much time looking at the screen and fiddling with the controls as looking at Paul Gauguin's pictures; the fashionably tight-jeaned French visitors and the fat people with even bigger coats. The respectable middle-aged couples presumably taking time out from their Christmas shopping trip to London to use their timed-entry tickets to the temple of Culture. And many others.
But the impact of these images is quite different now to the fin de siècle buyers in Paris, firstly images of unclothed women are in every tabloid and on many advertising billboards. These images were the ever so genteel porn of the 1890's. His blocky colour, some much the opposite to the pointillism he detested, has defined a style and his child-like but fluid compositions have never really been surpassed despite many imitations. But "paintings from Atuona" does seem to have been as much a branch off the main stream as the remote location of Hiva Oa would suggest. And actually was his life there that interesting: the archaeological examination of the contents of his well was disappointing. Just a couple of phials of morphine, consistent with the relief of maybe toothache: not evidence of an orgiastic drug-fuelled lifestyle. By the time he got there, he was getting on a bit and had limited money after all.