‘Under a fierce yellow and scarlet sky’ – Gauguin and the Impressionists at the RA - whynow

‘under a fierce yellow and scarlet sky’ – review of ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’ at The Royal Academy


‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’ at the Royal Academy reads like a roll-call of 19th century French painters, from Corot to Courbet, from Degas to Monet. The works here are all from the Ordrupgaard Collection, assembled by a wealthy Danish couple at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s the first major exhibition to open in London since lockdown, and it provides a chance to step out of the everyday, into the short, thick brushstrokes of Impressionism, right through to Gauguin’s heightening of colour and simplified form: uncanny spaces with a troubling edge.

Camille Pissarro, Plum Trees in Blossom, Éragny, 1894
Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

I can’t see the name ‘Gauguin’ without hearing Nick Cave: ‘Gauguin, he buggered off, man / And he went all tropical’. Cave’s characteristic facetiousness disguises a much darker story. Particularly since emerging the other side of postmodernism, Gauguin’s legacy has divided the art world. Perhaps more so than any other artist.

After studying with Camille Pissarro — often regarded as the first Impressionist — and gradually becoming fed up with Parisian social mores (and Impressionism itself), Paul Gauguin did indeed ‘bugge[r] off’.

First to rural villages in the likes of Brittany. Then to set up a studio in the South Seas, which is where his story gets the most problematic.

Alfred Sisley, Unloading Barges at Billancourt, 1877
Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

Some see this move as a romantic example of the artist-as-wandering mystic; Gauguin sought to capture (what he called) the ‘primitive’ ideals of Tahiti.

Others can’t look past the fact that, whilst Gauguin was living in the then French colony, he took several native brides, aged 13, 14 and 14. He promptly infected these children and other locals with syphilis.

Paul Cézanne, Women Bathing, c. 1895
Oil on canvas, 47 x 77 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

But while we talked, we might nevertheless find ourselves feeling somewhat icky. As the RA’s wall text remarks (and this is notable in itself, since very seldom does wall text wade in on issues of misogyny) Gauguin’s ‘depictions of Polynesian women often reflect his fantasies of a supposedly ideal “primitive” society’, fantasies which, ‘problematically, he also lived out.’

In New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018, a Gauguin was chosen for Michelle Hartney’s guerilla project Performance/Call to Action. Next to ‘Two Tahitian Women’ (1899), which depicts two topless figures, Hartney posted her own alternative wall text, quoting the American writer Roxanne Gay: ‘We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.’

It would seem that with the Royal Academy’s ‘problematically’, they have answered Hartney’s call — albeit in a watered-down way.

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Overcast, 1903
Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 100.5 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

If I’m putting a strange amount of emphasis on Gauguin and the handling of his legacy upfront, it’s because the exhibition title does. The RA is the final venue of a tour (while Denmark’s Ordrupgaard museum is closed for rebuilding.)

It began at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, bearing the title ‘The Hansens’ Secret Garden’ — which seems much more apt than ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’ given the intimate scale of many of the compositions, and given only eight out of sixty are works by Gauguin.

Rather, all the quiet courtyards and sun-dappled lawns gathered here soon stack up to give a snapshot of their collectors. Willhelm and Henny Hansen (a Danish art lover and his wife) cannily acquired these works when prices dropped during the First World War.

you can practically smell pine and petrichor

The Hansens housed them in Ordrupgaard, a summer villa outside Copenhagen, where guests were invited to view Edouard Manet’s ‘Basket of Pears’ (1882) — included here — ‘as an extra dessert after the ice cream’. The Hansens’ story — one of spotting much-needed beauty during a time of upheaval — bears an obvious parallel to the present, this being the first major exhibition to open after lockdown.

We begin en plein air (mais derrière un masque!) Step in, and you can practically smell pine and petrichor: the perspective in Claude Monet’s ‘The Chailly Road through the Forest of Fontainebleau’ (1865) draws the eye far down the woodland path, as temperate clouds hang overhead, still, for now. ‘Plum Trees in Blossom, Éragny’ (1894) bloom under Camille Pissarro’s hand: fleshy, flecked white blossom played off against the muted brick walls in the old farmyard.

Berthe Morisot, Young Girl on the Grass (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert), 1885
Oil on canvas, 74 x 60 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

In Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge, Overcast’ (1903), all is a blue gauze, fog blurring with chimney smoke; haze with the bleary ripples of the Thames, such that the bridge might dissolve into the background at any moment.

Turning your gaze from ‘Waterloo Bridge’ to, say, Monet’s ‘Antibes’ (1888) or ‘Autumn Effect, Argenteuil’ (1873) — which were both bought by Samuel Courtauld during the 1920s, when Hansen was also building his collection (and I believe still housed at the Courtauld Gallery) — is enough to make you squint.

all is a blue gauze, fog blurring with chimney smoke; haze with the bleary ripples of the Thames

 Comparing Courtauld’s and Hansen’s taste in Monets makes you wonder which one you’d rather have a pint with: the former seems drawn to dazzling landscapes brimming with light and optimism; the latter seems more cautious about too much ‘chocolate-box-y-ness’, preferring an urban scene of dull, leaden blue — no question it’s dreary, but Monet nonetheless draws beauty from it. Indeed, perhaps Impressionism’s most exciting insight was that great art could be made from the utterly ordinary.

Gustave Courbet, The Ruse, Roe Deer Hunting Episode (Franche-Comté), 1866
Oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

The second room provides more drama: Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Ruse’ (1866) sees deer scampering away from huntsmen through the snow. In the third room, Edgar Degas’ ‘Woman Brushing Her Hair’ (1894) is a portrait fizzing out of absinthe green.

Meanwhile, in ‘The Convalescent (Portrait of a Woman in White)’ (177-78), Eva Gonzalèz (a student of Manet’s) portrays her subject in a wash of white, as if she might fade away into nothingness, especially if we believe the ill-health alluded to in the title.

Eva Gonzalès, The Convalescent. Portrait of a Woman in White, 1877-78
Oil and charcoal on canvas, 86 x 47.5 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

Then, as either a footnote or climax depending on whether your glass is half-empty or -full, we come to works by Gauguin. ‘The Little One is Dreaming, Étude’ (1881) is a portrait of the artist’s daughter Aline, asleep. The hovering, ethereal birds on the wallpaper above Aline’s head pitch the scene somewhere between realism and reverie. A stiff doll in a jester’s costume in the foreground lends an eerie edge, threatening to turn reverie to nightmare.

There’s an even greater sense of foreboding in ‘Blue Trees (Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty!)’ (1888) — not least in its subtitle. Behind the cobalt tree trunks — verticals which clash noisily with the landscape’s horizontal contours — a man with hands buried in his pockets strikes a somewhat aggressive posture while a woman stoops nearby under a fierce yellow and scarlet sky.

This work was painted while Gauguin was staying with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles in 1888 and the Dutch painter’s influence is apparent, in particular, the use of flat and bold unmixed colours reminiscent of Japanese wood carvings. Painted during this same sojourn was ‘The Wine Harvest, Human Misery’ (1888), which hangs nearby, and if things are troubling here, the scene is desperate there.

Camille Corot, The Windmill, c. 1835-40
Oil on canvas, 25 x 39.5 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

‘The Wine Harvest’ is a composite of impressions: women wear clothes from Brittany (where Gauguin had been staying previously); the crouched figure in the foreground resembles a Peruvian mummy he saw in Paris; the harvest is treated like water, with the suggestion of frothy waves in the foreground, such that the quasi-expressionist take on heaped-up, fleshy vines reminds me of the blood tumbling out of the elevator in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. By closing off the horizon, the entire scene seems to weigh on the woman in the foreground, making the dominant mood very anguished indeed.

Nearby, we find ‘Portrait of a Young Girl (Vaïte ‘Jeanne’ Goupil)’ (1896), the daughter of a wealthy colonist in Tahiti, depicted here sitting uncomfortably in a dress that makes her look boxy, swamped. Her face is ashen and mask-like and full of angles. Surrounding her is a vibrant background in pink and blue, which seems so incongruous it’s as if Jeanne might be popped out of the canvas entirely like a template for a paper puppet. All put together, it’s hypnotising

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of a Young Girl, Vaïte (Jeanne) Goupil, 1896
Oil on canvas, 75 x 65 cm
© Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg
Exhibition organised by Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen and the Royal Academy of Arts

Next to his Impressionist predecessors, Gauguin’s sharpening of colour and his simplification of form is felt with the full force of a vivid dream. Landscapes are no longer wholesome, but an invitation into the unknown. Radically contoured figures appear to float in space, as symbols of Gauguin’s deeply personal mythology. And while at times it might be difficult to separate the artist’s personal life from his work, it was Gauguin himself who asked, ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ — the title of his final painting. Instead of ‘cancelling’ Gauguin or turning a blind-eye to his troubling behaviour, perhaps we might keep these questions firmly in mind. 

Rampa  They Will Be