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Gauguin – art’s Mr. Kurtz

By Dan Jones

Anybody who wants to see the hugely popular Gauguin exhibition at Fondation Beyeler in Riehen needs to hurry: it will end on 28 June.

Many weeks into its tenure, the Gauguin exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen is still astonishingly popular. A huge group of visitors are fitting their headpieces and the headpieces of others (husbands, wives, sons, et. al.), and are waiting to be led into the first room. On a lazy Sunday afternoon I am here at Fondation Beyeler, to where I have – figuratively – taken the boat up the river into the world of Paul Gauguin. He is to the artistic world what Joseph Conrad’s Mister Kurtz (in “Heart of Darkness”) is to literature: a man who, like Mister Kurtz, entered the jungle alive, and, after going mad, left it dead.

This exhibition is an artistic biopic, and it is arranged brilliantly to reflect this theme. You move by the unsettling scenes from his time in Brittany, to an – ostensibly – more mellow tone during his years in Tahiti.

As a boy, I was never convinced by the colours of the South Sea exotic idyll of Gauguin’s paintings – the ones I saw as peeling posters in the art classroom. There seemed to be an unsettlingly dark effusion beneath the colour, trying to break to the surface. The Gauguin posters never left me with that feeling of enthusiasm that the posters of Picasso’s exuberant paintings did, even though Gauguin’s work informed the genre that Picasso defined.

As you pass from room to room you see the development of a young painter into a mature one. The paintings of the young painter are filled with a sort of obvious symbolism, but as an older man, Gauguin coded this symbolism, and you are absorbed and lured by its enigmatic design.

And in this very same way, the exhibition is designed to draw you in – to an ambiguous world of bewilderment and symbolic suggestion. This journey has a powerful effect on the visitor. By using the paintings as they have, and putting them where they have, the designers of this exhibition have re-created the journeys of Gauguin, and the feelings that went with them. This is done in a way that takes you by surprise, and leaves you at the same time mystified and impressed.

Gauguin would have approved.

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