‘I can’t quite believe it, but we’re in the final week of the Gauguin exhibition in London. It seems only yesterday that we celebrated the opening in September. During the evening events I was lucky enough to meet a relative of the great man himself. Mette Gauguin is the great granddaughter via Paul, Gauguin’s fifth child with his wife - also called Mette. Recently, I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her famous relative, and this is what she said:

Paul Gauguin Nevermore
Paul Gauguin, Nevermore 1897

Christine Riding: When did you become aware of the significance of your family name? Was it a shock to know you were related to someone so famous?
Mette Gauguin: It is hard to say exactly when I became aware of him. It was a gradual process. I had several Gauguin prints in my bedroom as a child and can remember asking about them when about six years old. My favourite was Two Tahitian Women. I used to think they had such beautiful calm faces. But I remember being surprised by people’s questions and comments when I was a teenager. It was my first experience of him as a controversial figure - a bit of a shock I guess.
Christine Riding: Do you find the association with Gauguin a positive or negative thing?
Mette Gauguin: I have to say that it has been positive, on the whole. To be related to Gauguin and also to his grandmother Flora Tristan, seems pretty amazing. Though they were both such larger-than-life, colourful characters it is sometimes hard to comprehend that they are my ancestors. I am proud to be related, though perhaps I might have tried harder to have a career as an artist if I did not live in the shadow of his name. It has also has provided some wonderful experiences, which I would not have had without that connection. For example, travelling to the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti and meeting over the years, many interesting people.
Christine Riding: If Gauguin were alive today are there any questions you’d like to ask him?
Mette Gauguin: Heavens, what would I ask? I think I would be curious about how he saw himself. I know he was often boastful about his own significance. I’d like to know if he was being strident to cover up anxiety, or did he really have such self confidence about what he was doing? I wonder how he would view his legacy. Also I’m curious to know why was the paint so thinly applied to his canvas. Was it to save money or because he really wanted that thin flat effect. (I like it myself; I find thick impasto makes me feel slightly queasy). I’d also ask some personal questions about how he felt about being so far away from his family and friends and how he really viewed his relationships with women. And of course what everyone wants to know….what really happened in Arles with van Gogh! 
Christine Riding: Do you like him as a person?
Mette Gauguin: Do I like him? Sometimes not. I do think he was a difficult, arrogant man, but having been to the Marquesas, I realised fully for the first time how amazingly brave he was. I admire him greatly and consider myself privileged to be descended from such a genius. Many of my Danish relatives are more ambivalent. They find it hard to forgive his “desertion” of his children, though the truth of that part of his life though is more complicated than is often portrayed. Christine Riding: And what about his work? Any favourites?

Paul Gauguin Vision of the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
One of Mette’s favourites: Paul Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel1888

 Mette Gauguin: His work I have always loved. Some paintings are undoubtedly more successful than others, but I still get goose pimples in front of certain canvases. I particularly love his prints and ceramics, so it was wonderful to see the room devoted to his prints in the exhibition. If I could choose to own one picture it probably would be a toss up between Vision of the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel or Nevermore. Happily both are here in the UK so I can at least have visitation rights! 
Christine Riding: What did you think of the Tate Modern exhibition? It must be very strange wandering around an exhibition devoted to a great grand father, or are you used to it? 
Mette Gauguin: I have now been to many exhibitions around the world, but experience the same strong emotional feeling of pride and amazement. I often feel close to tears at times. What is rather strange is overhearing the comments of people viewing the pictures. I sometimes feel a strong urge to tap them on the shoulder and correct a misconception or thank them for saying they love the work! Most Gauguin exhibitions I have seen have been strictly chronological, so the Tate Modern show is a welcome change, making you think rather than just indulge. I was knocked out right at the start by the entrance into a wall of self-portraits. Brilliant! The curators set out to show Gauguin as a very modern artist, fully aware of the impact he wanted to make, shamelessly creating his own mythology, very sure of himself as part of the art. Also, the letters, posters and photographs help to flesh out the events in his life. I am particularly fond of his woodcuts and other prints and have never seen them all together, so that room was a delight. I am not sure he was always so consciously calculating in selecting material for the art as the curators imply. I think artists often find images float into the canvas from the unconscious, a brush-stroke suggests a shape that then emerges. Goodness knows he had enough material in his life to create the narrative mystery that unfolds in much of the work. But that said, I think the exhibition was wonderful, very well devised and pure joy to view - the glorious colours of the canvases singing out and the small rooms creating intimacy, so you could really feel the power of a picture.  

Thank you
Tate Modern.

Mette Gauguin is a printmaker and lives in Oxfordshire. 


paul middleton

great interview..i have just finished "the noble savage" and was bowled over by it..such a complicated and gifted man who did not get the real support he needed in his lifetime..good to see the "cahier pour aline" in the show which was very moving...i also wondered why the paint was so thin on the canvas...a deliberate move or to save money?...wonderful read in quieter a short paperback to recommend to anyone interested in the artists life...thanks again for putting on the show and such a terrific range of work, diaries, drawings, context etc....where is the "ou venons-nous? que sommes-nous? ou allons-nous? at present as i missed that one!!

Christine Riding

Hi Paul. Thanks for your post - great stuff! 'D'Ou Venons Nous...', which is a fabulous work of art, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is currently taking pride of place there, after the recent launch of a major building project (November 2010). Thanks again, Christine

mary michael ro...

Your interview with Mette Gauguin was a surprise and a treat for someone who has enjoyed the work of Gauguin for over 40 years. It was interesting for me to hear that she liked the first room with the self portraits. I did not like them all together in one room at the beginning of the show, as I like to see the progression of the artist along with the paintings he was making at the time. I found myself going back to the first room to look at the portrait to see how he looked, or how he wanted to look, at a given time, when I was relating his portrait to a certain time in his artistic life. I guess I like to visualize how he was living when certain paintings were being created. The show was remarkable for the amount of wonderful examples of all his artistic work. I would have liked to have less people in the rooms with me. For a show of this importance I would have thought the Tate would have given the opportunity to buy perhaps a more expensive ticket that would have allowed a viewing for those who would have wanted to walk around without the crowd. I will probably never see up close some of those paintings again in my lifetime - thank you.

juan andres sapriza

Ms. Riding, Very nice interview Well done I enjoyed it a lot !

Mary Hand

I loved the exhibition and the way it was set out -

Firstly Gauguin's colours, especially the reds, yellows and Prussian blue - naively I didn't realise how much of the vibrancy is lost in replications; then the very variety of subjects - from the close-to-home to the exotic; his motives and his titling and the range of his artefacts collected together in one place.

Then the arrangement of the exhibition with Rooms 3 and 8 providing the context of his work, and with exhibits like the wooden flagon which appear in the paintings. The themed rooms, too, helped explain his work and development.

Thank you - I now feel I know much more about Gauguin and about art/painting, even before reading the exhibition book!


Thanks Christine for all your posts and insights into the staging of the exhibition over the past 5 months. Good luck with the move to America. Will you let us know how it goes? LD

Dawn Clarke

I managed to get to the talk on the 13th. It was an excellent talk. A question was raised on how the curator thought Gaugain insulted women in his art, specificly as they play such a significant role. It seems Gaugain has gained a reputation for being chauvinist. This comment made me think and as a feminist myself I wondered if there could be another opinion. Considering his depiction of women is very powerful, explicit with teasing roles. The thought occurred to me if he was depicting women as being powerful, if not too powerful for the male sex(remember Gaugain's teasing and provactive attitude). He paints Goddesses, strong Haiti Females, a walking stick with a woman in full view with a serpent(pften the pagan symbol of female power), explicitly showing her teasing powers. Powers that many men have a problem with. Gaugain himself admitted this even in his paintings. Then there are the accounts of Eve, often in situations once again of teasing power( nb Franz Von Struck's german symbolism and his reinterpretation of women; he painted women very much as strong sexual characters, often reversing the role of male and female. All interesting art for the 1890's).Another point, do note before the christian church came to Taihti, being naked was normal and not a sin. It is as if some of his paintings are suggesting they can do some the viewer cannot. I do wonder if Gaugain had a secret joke to others. Yes he enjoys his sex and pleasure with women, but this does not mean he didn't acknowledge women's power. Again note he stayed faithful to Mette for quite a while. Good for a boheimian artist, who it can be said was playing his role daily as a performance. But note his paintings and sculptures, such as the powerful female serpent, the power of Eve and of course the female earth goddess, such as the water diety. He did reinvent these characters in quite a powerful way. He had a grandmother who was an early feminist. It is noted he respected her. Take note in Latin America the women were protrayed as having power through her head scarf. His mother no doubt was a strong woman. He married a strong woman. I am not defending him, but merely pointing out another opinion. He was quite a lad, but one who was aware of the power of women. A lad who used it in his art to tease us, but also to acknowledge women.

Dawn Clarke

One more comment. It became obvivious to me why this show was held at the Tate Modern. Often we find people who were before their time. I would argue Gaugain is one. He used a narrative which required the viewer to finish the story. Alot of his paintings have open narratives. The story is not closed. This of course has allowed for much speculation, but it requires an active involvement from the viewer. A relationship exists between the object of art, the viewer and the creator. The narrative will have a temporal meaning, changing with time as the viewer's context changes and more knowledge is gained. It is a fluid process. I would say Gaugain was aware of this. He was also open minded enough to incorporate more than one reality into his art. He brought in the dream word/imagination, just like early renaissance art.It also allowed for his humour/narrative to emerge or be hidden(like many artists). He also painted more than one reality, suggesting the multiple worlds we live in(material/imagination/private/social). I would argue this was quite progressive and fits into our modern way of thinking. So making the Tate Modern the practical place for this painter who may stimulate the minds of modern artists.I know I have found his work stimulating and hope his influence filters into my own paintings.

Rosemary Derwent

that's rotten I'll have to get the catalog as We were too busy moving a daughter last trip to London and had to catch the Diaghilev at the V+A instead...Is it going elsewhere next???