According to the National Gallery of Art, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” on view now, is an attempt to show Gauguin’s “use of religious and mythological symbols to tell stories, reinventing or appropriating narratives and myths drawn both from his European cultural heritage and from Maori legend.”
There’s certainly something in that idea: Gauguin was interested in Christianity and in other belief systems. There’s a tight 50-artwork show there. However, “Maker of Myth” isn’t a smart little show, it’s a nugget stretched out to 100-artwork blockbuster proportions. [Image: Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889. Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.]
Yes, there are a lot of great, great Gauguins on view now in Washington: The Tate and the National Gallery can pull in impressive loans. That’s also the problem with the show, which seems as much motivated by a ‘need’ to do a Gauguin exhibition than any scholarly or historically contextualizing imperative.
For every Gauguin that addresses religion and mythology, there seems to be one on view next to it that’s irrelevant. Sure, sometimes Gauguin uses self-portraits to play with questions of religious identity. That fits. But sometimes Gauguin is just painting himself, the artist. Many still-life paintings here are only tangentially — at best — about religion or mythology. Yes, Gauguin occasionally referred to — and updated — traditional Christian narratives in his art, but sometimes a picture of a mother and a child is just a picture of a mother and a child. And is every French, 19th-century painting of Arcadia a re-invention of a mythological narrative, or are Gauguin’s Arcadian paintings primarily the continuation of — or even a clinging to — a particular art historical tradition? Not every Gauguin nude comes loaded with Edenic or Arcadian backstory.
However, to be fair, the show on view at the NGA is not the show that Tate curator Belinda Thomson and NGA presenter Mary Morton put together. Because of a diplomatic dispute between the United States and Russia (at issue is an American court’s decision in a case involving Jewish religious documents held by Russia) six paintings that were to have been in the Tate/NGA exhibition were held back from the Washington presentation.
Would those six works have made a difference? I don’t think so. Several of them would have made the focused, 50-work show that lurks within this blockbuster even better, but I don’t think they’d have ‘fixed’ “Maker of Myth’s” blockbusteritis. However, here at MAN we report and you decide, so here they are (all are oil on canvas):