My name is Christine Riding. I’m a curator at the Tate and co-curator of the Gauguin Maker of Myth exhibition at Tate Modern. Well, as there hasn’t been a major Gauguin exhibition in London since 1966, and in fact not a retrospective since 1955, that is, dealing with all of the artist’s work across his whole career, we decided that we wouldn’t just simply gather together as many Gauguin’s as we could find – that we would actually have a very strong theme to the exhibition, and that is really built into the subtitle of the exhibition, ‘Maker of Myth.’ On the one hand, it’s looking at the narrative strategies that Gauguin employed throughout his career wherever he went, whether it be Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Brittany – all these different places he went to, the different strategies that he employed in the kind of works of art that he created. But also, Gauguin was a great self-mythologiser. He was a great self-portraitist, he projected all kinds of different images of himself through the representation of his features, but also he had alter egos like the fox. He also played with identities in terms of his friends, like Meyer de Haan. So Maker of Myth also looks at Gauguin himself and how he identified himself both as an artist and as a man.
We have about 150 works by him, and the sheer range of the material that he engaged with, whether it be the works on canvas that people expect or sculptures like this, little ceramic pots, his ‘monstrosities’ as he called them, or the amazing variety of prints, monotypes, zincographs – a lot of them actually were very pioneering in terms of technique. We’ve kind of little comments from visitors about this particular work of art, Oviri, which is written on the pedestal here. Oviri is very important to Gauguin himself. She means ‘savage’, and Gauguin used the term ‘savage’ to describe himself, because he, very famously, always played up the fact that he had Peruvian ancestry from his mother’s side; but more than that, that he actually had Inca ancestry. So when Gauguin talks about the savage, he actually is relating it very much to himself. He’s not viewing it as a Westerner, but rather as someone whose own ancestry chimes with that of Tahiti or Martinique, all these other places that he went to that had ancient culture. So she is a very dramatic, rather barbarous figure in many ways, very impassive face, and she grasps this poor wolf cub to her hip, which we imagine she has just throttled, because of the blood in the glaze that you see on the clay actually dripping down here. And then leans on the head of the she-wolf, which we can imagine is the mother of this cub. So it’s a kind of, almost like a perverted, savage idea of motherhood, which of course is meant to be, as we would understand it, a tender relationship between mother and child; and here is presented as sort of primordial and savage and impersonal.
So we’re in Gallery Six of the exhibition, called Sacred Themes, and again, it’s a gallery that mixes up Tahitian with Christian or Breton subject matter in order to underline a continual interest in the religious, which is a very major thing in Gauguin’s life and art. Standing between two really wonderful iconic Gauguins, it really is a spectacular room for masterpieces. So here we have Christ in the Garden of Olives, which was painted in 1889, and over here the Vision after the Sermon of 1888, which actually in Gauguin’s own lifetime was recognised as his great masterpiece. And it’s a fascinating painting, because actually it has literally been the focus of a Grand Exhibition in 2005. It’s so complicated in terms of what it’s actually saying to us. And what you have, basically, in symbolic terms through colour, another world being projected into our world, with Jacob and the Angel, which of course then links into the history painting of Biblical subjects, wrestling in the background, this wonderful juxtaposition of the red, yellow, green, and blue. And in the foreground, in some senses the actual subjects of the painting are these Breton women with their wonderful white coifs and then the blue black garments that they are wearing. It appears to be a scene of everyday life, and yet we have this very strange supernatural vignette in the background. So what Gauguin is suggesting is that these Breton women were deeply religious, had just come out of church after having heard a sermon, and we imagine that the subject is actually Jacob and the angel, and still in great sort of religious fervour with their hands in prayer, with their eyes closed, come out, and the vision that they see is actually in their minds, but Gauguin indicates what that is by showing it in the real world, to us, the viewer. And actually, I personally think that Gauguin was himself his greatest subject matter. I think he was continually looking to himself to develop a class of ideas about art and painting and so on. Some people actually think that this figure on the right hand side is actually Gauguin himself. So Maker of Myth is also as much about Gauguin himself as about his art.
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