National Gallery, London Until January 26
There are two things that everyone thinks they know about the French painter Paul Gauguin. He was living with Van Gogh in Arles when the Dutch artist cut off his own ear in 1888, and he had sex with teenage girls after moving to Tahiti in 1891.
Both things are true and both are referenced in this intoxicating and hugely challenging show. There is a room of works from the time Gauguin spent with Van Gogh and a series of stunning, colour-saturated paintings of idealised Tahitian girls, such as the two nudes in Barbarian Tales.
Touched by genius perhaps, but Gauguin was a middle-aged syphilitic when he went to the Pacific, and some of these mesmerising paintings of very young women are deeply troubling. They invite the age-old question, does the art excuse the artist?
Seven rooms are crammed with paintings, including iconic loans such as Self-Portrait With Yellow Christ (above), Woman With A Mango and deeply strange symbolist paintings
This show reconfirms Gauguin as a hugely influential artist, a painter of fevered intelligence – no surprise with his medical condition – who laid down the rules for what was, perhaps, a particularly male school of modern art.
Seven rooms are crammed with paintings, including iconic loans such as Self-Portrait With Yellow Christ, Woman With A Mango and deeply strange symbolist paintings such as The Royal End, a portrait of a Tahitian man’s severed head that comes from Gauguin’s imagination rather than indigenous practice.
The first room is dedicated to self-portraits, but so, in a way, is everything else. Gauguin was searching for himself in every work, and his own hawk-like nose appears in both Christ In The Garden Of Olives and The Sorcerer Of Hiva Oa.
Gauguin was liberated creatively by his time in the Pacific. Boldness with colour and the melding of symbolism with representation helped him to break free of, to him, a moribund post-impressionist scene in France, allowing him to create something startling and new.
To do this he often had to exploit the innocence of other people. These works are extraordinary and beautiful, but was the price worth paying?
ALSO WORTH SEEING
Michael Werner Gallery, London Until November 16
The Scottish painter Peter Doig is the sort of artist who’s beloved by the art establishment: critics, curators and auction houses. In 2017, his painting Rosedale sold for £22.4 million.
Doig, 60, has never been a household name, though. Exhibitions of his tend to pass without great footfall. Is his latest, with 14 new works, worth a visit?
If you’re not familiar with Doig’s work, the answer is yes. His paintings drop the viewer in the midst of perplexing scenes, about which we’re given neither details nor background.
In Lion In The Road (Sailors) it’s a fiercely bright summer’s day, and a lion sits on a book-like plinth in the middle of the road
In Lion In The Road (Sailors) it’s a fiercely bright summer’s day, and a lion sits on a book-like plinth in the middle of the road. Bather (Night Wave), meanwhile, sees a muscly hunk posing on a beach, with a naked female lying lifeless behind him.
Both works invite questions. What’s a lion doing on the loose in a city, and what has happened to that poor woman?
It’s surprising that Doig isn’t more famous. Yes, he pays frequent homage to past artists (Gauguin and Van Gogh). However, anyone can engage with his work, not just those with art history degrees.
People of all ages like a good story, and that’s essentially what Doig’s paintings are.
Those who’ve visited other shows by him will have seen different incarnations of the lion and hunky bather. Those who haven’t, though, could do worse than check out what one of this country’s top artists is up to.