The assorted Paul Gauguin portraits currently on show at the National Gallery are not beautiful. Still less are they moving. But they are really quite funny.
It is perhaps a strange assertion, seeing how seriously Gauguin took himself. The self-portraits which line the opening room of Gauguin Portraits show a man entirely charmed with the permutations of his own physical appearance. In these painting he is by turns distracted and beefy, clammy and angelic. Yet upon coming across Self Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890-1891) we are exposed to an ironic sensibility keenly attuned to all that is absurd in man. Here a ruddy, blue-jumpered Gauguin comes between the viewer and a skinny, jaundiced caricature of Jesus, with an anthropomorphic chamber-pot placed over his other shoulder for good measure. The contrast between the fey, virtuous man-god and the banally blokeish Gauguin with his silly potty is so baroquely weird as to make us grin.
Time and again Christianity is the butt of Gauguin’s jokes. His 1902 wood sculpture Father Lecher depicts the lecherous and hypocritical French bishop in the Marquesas Islands as a nasty, brutish and short devil. What Gauguin takes issue with is all the shame and guilt and loathing inspired by the pristine sexlessness of the Christian mythos, centred as it is on an incorruptible messiah born of a virgin mother. Merahi metua no Tehamana (1893) has Gauguin’s Tahitian child-bride stiff and bored in a missionary dress. How much truer to life is the uncovered, elementally female idol behind her: a clear-cut, sensual goddess embedded in the fabric of worldly existence and made in the image of man. Above Tehamana are scrawled an array of golden symbols. Maybe they are Tahitian script, maybe they are nonsense. Their meaning seems comically irrelevant besides the erotic thrill electrifying Gauguin’s artistic gaze.
Tehamana was, of course, only thirteen. Perverts see things the rest of us don’t, and it seems that paedophile desire made Gauguin as a painter and wrecked him as a man. The ugly, washed-out family portraits and Breton scenes in Room 2 show what barren soil respectable French society was for his artistic instincts. If Mette in Evening Dress (1884) is anything to go by, Gauguin’s wife was a real-life Charlotte Haze, tragically written off as conventional and over the hill by her Humbert Humbert of a husband. By his first trip to Tahiti in 1891 he had abandoned her and their five children.
If Tahiti laid bare in paint the sordid images of which Gauguin’s soul was constituted, it also exposed something noble in him. 1892’s The Afternoon of a Faun is a gorgeous study in stained tamanu wood purporting to depict an array of Polynesian idols. For a moment it tricks you into thinking Gauguin had sailed to the South Pacific for reasons loftier than grim wish-fulfilment. Lusting after adolescents awakened Gauguin to the transience of human beauty: his portraits are filled with wilting flowers and overripe fruit, which besides being biblical portents of carnal temptation evoke the finitude of all delectable things, human beings included. Still Life with ‘Hope’ (1902) alludes touchingly to Gauguin’s dead friend and rival Van Gogh with its depiction of dying sunflowers. Art is not life for Gauguin, nor is it a mirror of life. It is rather an aspic in which beautiful things bound by mortal time can be made to live forever.
But the sunflowers are, it is worth restating, shrivelling away. Gauguin knew he was a moral ruin, and his tortured self-awareness gave him enough irony to doubt art’s promise of immortality. The otherworldly palette of greens and yellows with which Gauguin renders human flesh intimates his understanding of what is lost when human beings ignore death: the intensity, the urgency, the redeeming sense of the absurd. For Gauguin, sex and death are the twin poles of our lives, the manic glow of the one only darkening the shadow of the other as it pulls us through regardless.
And since the only alternative is to cry, we may as well laugh. Among the most absorbing works here is the 1893-4 double-sided portrait Self Portrait with Manao tupapau / Portrait of William Molard. On the one side, we are confronted with Gauguin himself placed alongside a caricature of one of his Tahiti paintings, a clear-eyed mockery of their primitivist promise. Walking around it, we are astonished to see on its reverse an upside-down depiction of Molard, the formal inversion precluding any appreciation of the subject’s individuality. How absurd, how stupid, how funny are art’s pretensions to knowledge of the human heart: insights which, when refracted through all of sexual neurosis and all of mortal fear, would appear as superficial as the play of paint on canvas.