Identity and Self Mythology Room 1

Paul Gauguin Tate Modern exhibition banner

Gauguin’s self-portraits were a vital tool for the fashioning and refashioning of his identity. From bourgeois banker and family man to bohemian martyr and the notorious ‘savage’ of his later years, his shifting persona was a source of puzzlement and speculation for his contemporaries. These diverse guises can be seen as the careful crafting of a public image, but they also reflect a multiplicity of attempts to see and understand himself.

The earliest work in this room shows him in his late twenties, wearing the soft black fez associated with bohemian artists and intellectuals. This was several years after his marriage to a young Danish woman, Mette Gad, and he was working as a stockbroker in Paris while pursuing painting as a hobby.

Another self-portrait, made almost ten years later, shows him at his easel, attempting to establish himself as a full-time artist. The sloped beams of an attic room testify to his more constrained financial circumstances, as well as playing on the familiar image of the struggling artist in his garret. Rather than endure poverty in Paris, the family moved to Rouen and then to Copenhagen, where this self-portrait was made. Gauguin worked as a tarpaulin salesman but struggled to earn a living. After a few months, he returned to France, while Mette stayed on. They barely saw each other again.

Although he seems not to have painted any self-portraits during his first visit to Tahiti in 1891-3, several that he made back in Paris promote his image as the artist who had ventured to the far side of the world and ‘gone native’. In one he identifies himself with his painting Manao tupapau 1892, which is also on display in this room. Another sets his thoughtful features alongside one of his own carved ‘tikis’ – a wooden idol based on Oceanic artefacts.

His last painted self-portrait was made in 1903. By now he had returned to the South Seas and was living in the Marquesas, isolated and in ill health. His close cropped hair and white tunic suggest the appearance of an invalid, while the glasses convey an introspective quality. Yet even as he was constructing this image of vulnerable mortality, Gauguin was vigorously engaged in protracted battles with the colonial authorities.