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National Gallery's groundbreaking exhibition sheds new light on the many faces of Paul Gauguin

The world's first exhibition of portraits by the famed 19th-century French post-impressionist will be on display at the National Gallery until Sept. 8.

More than a century before the arrival of social media and selfies, Paul Gauguin was using oil paint, charcoal and metal to share his personas with the world.

In the first, spacious room of the National Gallery of Canada’s new and groundbreaking exhibit Gauguin: Portraits, likeness after likeness unmistakably depict the fascinating, innovative and controversial French 19th-century artist.

But while the hooked nose, flattened cheeks and facial hair are constants, the self-portraits stress different sides of their maker. In some, Gauguin is the cosmopolitan traveler who had been, most famously and even notoriously, to Tahiti. In others, he is a suffering, misunderstood artist. Some works even cast him as a Christ-like figure. With a bronze bust, Gauguin likens himself to a savage.

As Gauguin wrote in 1903, the year of his death at the age of 54: “You wish to know who I am; my works are not enough for you. Even at this moment, as I write, I am revealing only what I want to reveal.”

Still, Gauguin: Portraits, the first-of-its-kind exhibition that opened Friday, is filled with revelations thanks to guest curator Cornelia Homburg, who has spent the last four years on the project.

“When we started out, we knew that we would make new discoveries,” said Homburg. “But we didn’t know the extent of it — how much we actually learned about the artist, about his way, how he did his work, how he created his ideas through making portraits of others and how inventive he could be.

“That’s amazing, when you work on a project for four or five years and during that time you constantly continue to get new insights … That’s the most wonderful thing I think an exhibition can bring about,” Homburg continued.

“And then, of course, as a curator to have such great works of art brought together and they can communicate with each other, that’s just pure joy.”

The exhibition consists principally of more than 50 Gauguin artworks created between 1881 and 1903. After its run in Ottawa, the exhibition will be displayed this fall at the National Gallery in London, England, where the exhibition’s co-curator, Ottawa-born, Carleton University graduate Christopher Riopelle, is the Neil Westreich curator of post-1800 paintings.

Arranged thematically by Homburg rather than chronologically, the exhibition features rooms filled with Gauguin’s self-portraits, portraits of children, relatives, friends, peers and female models, including the Tahitian teenager Tehamana, with whom Gauguin lived. Homburg has brought together these works from more than 40 public and private collections, including the holdings of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Just two of the works belong to the National Gallery. One of them is Gauguin’s striking larger-than-life bust of the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan, which enjoys pride of place in the exhibition and was the subject of penetrating research by Doris Couture-Rigert, the National Gallery’s chief conservator.

Several years ago, when Homburg was in Ottawa to curate the National Gallery’s 2012 exhibition Van Gogh: Up Close, she saw the de Haan bust, which the gallery had purchased in 1968. That encounter inspired her to propose an exhibition of Gauguin’s portraits.

Homburg said Gauguin, a post-Impressionist who boldly experimented with colour and abstraction, has been hugely influential. The artist “opened sort of a path for everything that happened in the 20th century, and even in this century, still there are people who think about what he has been doing,” she said.

As a portraitist, Gauguin took new liberties, just as he did when he portrayed himself, consciously breaking from the traditions of depicting social standing, family background and a subject’s personal characteristics, Homburg said. “He tended to ignore all that, in favour of expressing his own ideas about art and his personal associations with a particular person. That defined his portraits in a very new way. And that has been the focus of our exhibition.”

But despite Gauguin’s artistic greatness, an exhibition dedicated to him must still grapple with the problematic man behind the work.

“He was a very complicated and almost contradictory person,” Homburg said.

Not only did Gauguin abandon his family a dozen years before his death, but his later stays in French Polynesia have prompted critiques of him not only as a privileged colonialist but also as a pedophile who infected several child brides with syphilis.

“Foul man, fine artist … No matter how majestic Gauguin’s canvases, it’s hard finding sympathy for the devil,” wrote Alastair Smart, art critic for the Daily Telegraph, for a 2010 story headlined “Is it wrong to admire Paul Gauguin’s art?”

Asked what she thought it would be like to travel back in time and meet Gauguin, Homburg said: “Yes, I think I would want to meet him. But I’m not sure that I would enjoy it.”

The exhibit and its accompanying lavish catalogue do not ignore the controversies that come with Gauguin. “Those are topics that are very much at the top of our minds,” Homburg said, noting that talks at the National Gallery will not flinch from addressing issues such as colonialism and Gauguin’s relationships with women.

But she continued: “For us as art historians, one of the hardest things, but one which is really important, is that one does not read the art through the personality of an artist.

“When you start trying to understand the work solely or largely through the lens of personality, I think one is lost,” Homburg said. “One really loses out (on) the ambitions of the artist and what he did, and what his impact was afterward.”

Gauguin: Portraits
What : The world’s first exhibition of portraits by the famed 19th-century French post-impressionist
Where : National Gallery of Canada
When : May 24 to Sept. 8
Lectures and talks : May 25, 2 to 3 p.m., featuring exhibition curator Cornelia Homburg; June 14, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. featuring curator Claire Bernardi of the Musée d’Orsay; June 27, 6 p.m., featuring Homburg and other Gauguin scholars; Sept. 5, 6 p.m. featuring Gauguin scholars
Info : and the Gauguin: Portraits audioguide, a free app for mobile phones


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