‘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:
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?
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.
Mette Gauguin is a printmaker and lives in Oxfordshire.