What I like most about Gauguin’s paintings, I decided the other day while wandering around the Tate’s blockbuster exhibition, are the big bold blocks of colours and the strong smooth black outlines.
These outlines make everything look so clean, so separate and individual. Each apple or pear in his still life paintings asks to be picked up, to be handled, touched, taken out of the composition. The puppies in the popular Still Life with Three Puppies beg to be held, to be stroked and played with. Outlined so strongly in black, they are clearly independent of one another – there are three puppies, not merely ‘some’ puppies – each one is separate from the other, and even more separate from the three glasses and three apples below them. I’m not sure if Gauguin would like the association, but the painting reminds me of a child’s sticker book. The outlines are obvious, the shapes distinct, as though each one – with its appealingly wavy outline – has been stuck on to the canvas.
This technique, which I find so impressive, is called cloisonnism, named after an old method of metalwork decoration which uses wires to section off compartments for various coloured enamels or inlays.
While I was looking at all this Gauguin, I found that I was still half-thinking about Passion, a Sondheim musical that I’d been to see the night before. It is definitely a haunting musical, the songs almost dissonant, the character Fosca spooky in her sickliness. I loved it, and I particularly loved the Donmar’s production. Indeed, the production seems to me to be similar to Gauguin’s cloisonnism.
In Passion, Giorgio is happily in love with his Milanese mistress, Clara. But then he is posted to a remote military station in the mountains, where he pines for her. A great deal of the musical is taken up with Clara and Giorgio’s letters to each other. And when Giorgio reads one of Clara’s letters, she bursts on to the stage, striding past the other soldiers, perching on the mess table, easily inhabiting Giorgio’s surroundings as though she is there rather than in Milan.
Clara is so real for Giorgio, so sharply outlined, that she can be plucked from her Milanese environment and summoned before him. Her luxurious prettiness looks out of place in the austere military camp, but it is there nonetheless. It is as though she has been peeled out of her rightful page and stuck down on the wrong one.
It is just as I felt tempted to do with Gauguin’s subjects. What if the French apples were swapped for the Tahitian mangoes? What if the Tahitian woman were transported to the Breton landscape? It is an impulse encouraged by the Tate’s bias towards thematic rather than chronological curating. All his still lifes are in one room – how easy it would be to move an apple from its bowl to a Tahitian basket.
But I don’t think that Gauguin wanted his sharp outlines, his cloisonnism, to have this effect.
Gauguin’s rendering of place is tied to local people’s interaction with it. He is expressly saying that you can’t take a Tahitian woman out of her beautiful landscape of pinks, reds and greens. For Gauguin, Tahiti is where ‘these women [are] whispering in an immense palace decorated by nature itself.’ You can’t take them out of the palace, away from their beautiful nature.
In the painting Are you Jealous?, for instance, the title could be part of a conversation between the two Tahitians, but it could also be addressed to the viewer. Are we Europeans jealous of this beautiful idyll? Are we jealous of being able to lie naked, baking in the warm sun on pink sand, next to iridescent water and the cool shade of a green tree? When he exhibited his paintings in Paris, he insisted on the Tahitian titles being used, rather than French translations. His paintings are self-consciously exotic, other, foreign. It would be wrong to take someone out of a Tahitian painting and put her into a Breton one, just as a Breton peasant would look out of place in the Tahitian landscape. Just as Clara looks out of place at Giorgio’s military post.
Perhaps it is because of Gauguin’s method of working that everything seems so separate, so easy to pluck from the canvas. Rather than following the Impressionist vogue for painting ‘en plein air’, Gauguin made only sketches outdoors; his paintings were composed in the studio, guided by aesthetic decisions rather than just pure observation.
So he plucked these women and these objects from other scenes, reassembling them on his canvas. And so it is no wonder, really, that they remain so pluckable, as though these canvases are merely temporary homes.
I came away wishing that I could be plucked and stuck onto one of those Tahitian landscapes. Coming out into the cold crisp air by the Thames, it felt rather a long way away.
And it is such a long way away. Really it is this foreignness that is so extraordinary about Gauguin. He was a stockbroker. He had a wife and kids. He only painted in his spare time. He wasn’t so different from all the bankers, with their wives and child-filled buggies, that circulated around the Tate Modern, leaving the gallery to find the nearest Carluccio’s to feed Flossie and Archie and Henry before they kick up too much of a fuss.
Gauguin left all this behind and went somewhere completely different. And, if it wasn’t quite as different as he wanted it to be, then no wonder he tried to make it look all the more exotic. I’ve done it, all his paintings are saying. I’ve left you all behind in cold drizzly France to be surrounded by colour and heat and naïve beauty. I’ve stopped looking for all the sixpences and started seeing the beauty of the moon. (Somerset Maugham spotted that too.) Gauguin’s own outline must have been pretty clear for him to be able to successfully peel himself out of real life and transfer himself to an utterly new page.
I wonder if any of the stockbrokers milling around the Tate on their Saturday afternoon were tempted to follow his lead.