Gauguin self-portrait vase in the form of a severed head

Did you know Gauguin made ceramics? Here is his bizarre Self-portrait vase in the form of a severed head 1889

Image courtesy The Danish Museum of Art and Design, Photo: Pernille Klemp

One of the strangest works in the Gauguin exhibition, in my opinion, is this vase with a handle (or is it a bizarre Toby jug?) It’s a self-portrait in the form of a severed head. What on earth was Gauguin playing at? Is it a riff on the story of John the Baptist, who was beheaded at the whim of Salome? (Freud would have a field day…) Or is it a weird nod towards Gauguin’s angst-ridden stay in Arles, which ended with Van Gogh threatening him with a razor before lopping off his own earlobe? When Gauguin returned to Paris from Arles, in December 1888, he attended the execution by guillotine of a convicted murderer named Prado. Apparently he and Van Gogh had been following the trial and were fascinated by all the lurid details. I always associate guillotines with the French Revolution and ‘The Reign of Terror’ - it’s amazing to think that they were still used in France (and elsewhere) well into the twentieth century. Was this the inspiration for the severed-head theme? Wherever it came from, Gauguin’s macabre pot is a tremendously powerful object…what do you think? 

Comments

Liba Weltman

Dear Christine,

I absolutely loved the way the paintings were displayed by subject rather than chronological order.

My overall feeling on leaving the exhibition was that Gauguin really was still a mistery to us, he used his paintings, ceramic and wood carvings to give us the images he thought we wanted. He wanted us to see him in a particular light, and so much in his paintings is left unexplained, and I think he wanted it like that.

However, one thing is not in doubt his use of colour was dazzling and he was not merely another impressionist painter.

Well done to you and the team a great success.

Liba Weltman
liba.weltman@dsl.pipex.com

Roger Handley

Hi Christine, Firstly thanks for your email it being the first I have ever received to comment on an exhibition. I visited the Gauguin exhibition yesterday, and found it a thoroughly absorbing experience. He is not my preferred painter, but I found most of the pictures very interesting. Of all that I saw I particularly liked the one called Two Tahitian Women, which I think was in the last gallery, 11 I believe. Considering it was painted towards the end of his life, I was astonished by the detail not always seen in earlier paintings of his. I think the exhibition will be great success, and I plan to go back for a second visit before it ends. It would be fair to say that the layout of the exhibits was in my opinion quite excellent, so very well done'

JULIAN SAUNDERS

I was fascinated at how modern he was in creating a myth of his own life as a marketing tool. He really understood the concept of "success de scandale" and doubtless was able to keep himself the talk of Paris with his rackety lifestyle and seduction of young women. Damian Hirst could have studied at his feet when it came to a talent for publicity. This was carried through into his art in which he was in way old fashioned in his suggestions of narrative and backstory in many of his paintings.
However his narratives were more allusive than classical art, which followed commonly understood symbols. But it was much more than narrative painting-
His lush and erotically charged pictures are glorious escapism to wallow in.

The audio commentary was good but i sensed that the people who produced it didnt really approve of Gauguin and felt the need for some political correctness over his seduction of young women and publicity seeking. There was one absolutely desperate attempt at a feminist critique that i sensed the commentator didnt really believe in herself

Michael P

Vast and comprehensive, and meticulously curated, a once in a generation chance to see most of the Gauguin Opus under one roof ,
I will visit it several more times cos retinal exhaustion and crowd dodging takes its toll,
Would have loved to have seen the painted glass panel from the door which Somerset Maugham personally unscrewed and bought for 200 francs at Mataiea just 15 years after P.G's death. Whatever happened to that???

Rachel Feldman

I wholeheartedly second Richard's note of thanks, it's wonderful to be invited to respond to an exhibition in a public forum. Liba's comment also rings true, the exhibition was brilliantly orchestrated and what a treat to be able to pore over some of Gauguin's own letters, drawings and sources of inspirations in the rooms dedicated to his life story. I really appreciated the opportunity to get to know the artist - it made his pieces before me so much more vivid.

However, I loathe to bring the mood down but I would be interested to know if any other visitors to the exhibition took issue with what is quite rightly termed Gauguin's "mythmaking". Whilst I can enjoy the aesthetics of his works, the brilliant jewelled colours and inventive compositions (particularly such as that of the witty "Still Life with Fruit") I couldn't help the niggling sense that it was somewhat exploitative of Gauguin to invent his depictions of islanders.

Of course art and artists are no strangers to mythmaking and embellishment. I just felt as though his subjects were particularly vulnerable, unlike some of the wealthy Europeans who commissioned artists to straighten their crooked noses and smooth their wrinkles in their glamorous portraits. I in no way intend to say that art should abide by strict rules of realism and provide a kind of social and historical documentation of actual events and people. Only, did anyone else feel that perhaps his mythmaking was somehow harmful? That his Western audience was not sophisticated enough to understand what he set out to achieve? Especially in light of some of the race-based theories emerging from colonial Europe?

I'm truly sorry to be a killjoy! I greatly enjoyed the exhibition and I congratulate Christine on a masterful feat of curatorship. I simply seek to discover whether any other visitors shared my impressions.

Kind regards,

Rachel.

deirdre mcardle

well I'm reminded of little Louise Bourgeois on film, pushing her HEADLESS sphynx (Nature Study) off its plinth saying angrily "and zee depression,I carrrn't tell you about zee depression"!

Jim Lingard

Absorbing exhibition. Good to see G's non-painting work, too. Excellent decision to show all that interesting background info - letters, newspaper reportage, photos, postcards, etc. And great to see G's satirical work - I loved the Governor on the rocking horse!

Question: Most of his paintings contained females and most of those with males contained, well... just him!Did he find men boring, a threat or....?

Thanks for your hard work.It has produced a wonderfully stimulating experience.

Hilary Lavender

I liked the rooms being arranged in themes and found the commentaries in each room helped me understand how difficult Gaugin's work is the understand. However, I find Gaugin's work leaves me indifferent. The flatness of his paintings, the inscrutable faces and even the calm face on the bloody jug makes me feel as though he is missing something vital.

Lightdragoon

I thought the ceramics were a revelation, and this reminded me of Wellington's death mask at Apsley House! The choice of glaze is fascinating with the red coming through as if drops of blood, especially around the severed neck.
Did he just do the one, or are there others in the series of his colleagues and friends? And is it glazed inside so it can be used, or is it purely decorative?

Freddie Rowe

Overall I thought the exhibition was fantastic, albeit a bit elbow to elbow at times. It was a wonderful range of his works and I especially liked the coloured woodcuts. Shame really that the shop was so empty of info on this or indeed his letters. He had a lot to say and the quotes were a great taster for more to feed the experience. Whilst seeing an artists life in a few rooms can only be a sketch it was a pleasure to be able to ramble through and enjoy it.

Robert W

His use of colour is just stunning, I also loved the wood carvings. This felt like a truly unique exhibition in the sense that these wonderful objects may never be found in the same place ever again, when you note the wide variety of places that they have been sourced from. One small complaint I managed to completely miss room 3 (entrance hidden behind false wall) was there a sign? Luckily being a member I will be returning to this marvellous exhibition and will catch up on room 3 then.

Jackie

My first thoughts on the exhibition are that I need to see it again and I think I wouldn't have liked Gaugain.
Why? Not sure but perhaps because I felt like he painted what he thought would sell and make him money.
I loved his small sketches and watercolours,rough works but seemed to have more feeling in them.
Its a great exhibition,informative ,not having known much about the artist before I feel after a couple more visits I will be able to understand him better.
Didn't have any idea he did ceramics and thought the jug with 2 spouts and figures climbing over it was like a novelty teapot! good fun.

Ishanif

I loved this exhibition. It is such a sensory experience - not only visual but Gaugin is to be drunk, smelled, listened to also. You feel his work as much as see it and even in the crowds which we had to bustle through, I felt an immediate connection with each piece. I have loved his painting since I studied his work and his contemporaries years ago at A'Level, least of all, as a non-white person, it was so wonderful to see women with similar skin tone to me, the Tahitians, being portrayed as studies in beauty. I know this may not have been his intention but it was helpful for my own self-portraits! It was so great to see his ceramics and wood carving too and the whole idea of creating one's own idols is very appealing and contemporary idea. The door lintel particularly transports you back to his tropical studio. My companion felt that there was almost too much to see but I was excited by all the works I had never seen in the flesh and the reproductions can never do justice to that amazing, almost fluorescent orange and the twilight glow of his purples. I adore colour and it is reassuring to see the depth it can create as opposed to the attitude these days that it is frivolous or lacks sincerity. Saying that, however, I loved the black, almost translucent woodcuts and the graphic marrying of Tahitian and French styles. Some of the true treasures were the simplest of pen and ink sketches. I enjoyed the background material rooms too and if I was studying art history would have found them really useful and I admire the way the man and his work were put in context. I will definitely be visiting again and taking my seven year old daughter who draws nearly everyday of her life. Thank you for asking my opinion!

Ishanif

p.s. Are there any reproductions of his book Noa, Noa? As I would have loved to have picked up a copy in the book shop!

Natalie d'...

Hello Christine, I wrote a review of the Gauguin exhibition on my blog, Blaugustine, and have been trying to copy it to the Tate Modern FaceBook page but with no luck so far. Maybe because it's too long? Or because I haven't really got the hang of FB. Anyway, I'd appreciate your telling me if I can cross-post it over here. Thanks and good wishes.

Rosemary Goldsmith

Yes Ishanif there was a book called 'Gauguin's Paradise Remembered The Noa Noa Prints', it was in the shop, and as I was blown away with his wood engravings and Zincography I bought that book instead of the 'other' one. Inside the front cover of the book it says that it is published in conjunction with the exhibition (see title) at the Princeton University Art Museum from September 2010 to January 2011. Back to the Exhibition. I thought it was brilliantly curated and enjoyed being shown his work in instalments, but I was so disappointed in Gauguin when reaching Room 11. Yes, it was about his commercialsism, but perhaps I had not fully appreciated it. Every Artist has to earn by his work, we all do, but it was almost exploiting women, but it did seem that he didn't have a very high opinion of women. Artisticly though I fell in love with his prints, the fluidity of the human form which was not there in his paintings of chunky women, the tonal qualities, still the mystery, but there was something there that made me feel he was happier with this medium. As for the 'jug', looked just like a death mask, the macabre was almost humerous. Thank you Christine for this opportunity to share our experience and thoughts, a brilliant exhibition.

Christine Riding

Dear all,
Thanks so much for your comments, which are tremendously informative and insightful. Thanks also for your thoughts on the exhibition itself - its important to know how you're experiencing the galleries, layout and themes (and yes, I'm noting your comments about caption sizes and will send on to the rest of the curatorial team). Keep the comments coming!
With thanks again and very best wishes,
Christine