Gauguin and the National Gallery

The National Gallery’s highlight exhibitions which started in October are coming to a close and I am on my way to see it. I drop my car off to get its oil gasket replaced and take the tube to the city. Despite the fact that it is mid-week, a working day and the exhibition has been going on for a while the gallery is still packed. 

Paul Gauguin, a Parisian post impressionist artist from the nineteenth century, specialised in the art of Synthetism. He cut a controversial figure in his hey day and it continues even now. Following a short stint in the Navy he became a successful stockbroker. It was during this period that he met Pissarro and started dabbling in art. Around this time the stock markets crashed and instead of finding another job he decided to become a full time artist. He forged friendships with Edgar Degas, Van Gogh and many other famous artists of the period. Being an argumentative person his friendships didn’t last long. His association with Van Gogh ended the night Van Gogh cut his ear. Degas seems to be the only friend who supported him throughout his life and career. It sounds like he struggled to sell his paintings till the latter part of his life. That was then, now his paintings exchange hands for tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars and ‘Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)’ belongs in the top five most expensive paintings in the world. 

In the era of the ‘me too movement’ there is a worry how appropriate it is to celebrate such artists. Gauguin had liaisons with teenage Tahitian girls who were the subject of his much acclaimed paintings and married Teha’amana who was only 13 years old at the time, his second marriage. Should we discard the artist with the art or turn a blind eye and enjoy the art, the quandary continues. The short film which accompanied the exhibition justified his quests as something which was normal for that period in the Pacific islands.

Gauguin’s art form is not something that interested me but what I found intriguing was his sculptures. The wood, ceramic and bronze portraits with the accompanying added elements to create the whirlpool that is the inner psyche or what he wanted to portray about the personalities of each of his characters gave meanings to otherwise what was just a face. 

There are a couple of portraits which he painted one with Van Gogh by his side of Madame Roulin and another one of Madame Ginoux who sat for both artists. Imagine having two of the world’s greatest artists painting your portrait. The images they came up with were not similar due to the differing painting styles they used. Both the artists were largely unappreciated during their lifetime. It was also interesting to note that both characters have been described as being argumentative. They say that you are the average of the friends you spend the most time with and none so truer than Gauguin and his friends. 

The second exhibition was of Leanardo and The Virgin of the Rocks. Towards the end of the fifteenth century Leanardo da Vinci received a commission to paint ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’. He made two similar images. The first earlier version hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris and the second one in the National Gallery. They were briefly united I believe for the da Vinci exhibition a while ago. Research into the second painting showed that da Vinci was originally planning to paint a different version but then opted for a slightly modified version of his original one. Scans of the painting show the sketches that he had originally drawn. The exhibition describes how da Vinci took inspiration from nature, how he toyed with light and shade to put the spotlight on the main characters in his picture and brought them out as 3D images, the differences between the two versions and finally the gallery has recreated the setting as it would have looked with the masterpiece hanging in its original space on the alter in the chapel it was intended for. 

There was a talk on the Leanardo experience. I didn’t have time for this but joined the group for the highlights tour of the museum instead. A tour they do every week day where a guide talks us through important artworks. These paintings are not just mere brushstrokes but each illustration tells a story. A story which brings these treasures to life and let us into their magical world, but only if we let them. 

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