What! Are You Jealous?

A fascinating, cleverly-themed insight into a complex, much-caricatured artist.  Relationships between myth, narrative and truth are, at times, exquisitely delineated and the explorations of Gauguin's sense of self, his ability to step beyond the constrictions of his age and, perhaps surprisingly, his commercial nous, are beautifully done. The range of work captured is vast: as well as paintings, there are sculptures, prints, wood-carvings, writing and ceramics ('Self-portrait vase in the form of a severed head', in particular, is astonishing.) By the end, those familiar 'exotic' oranges, browns and yellows have darkened and deepened, and much of the death and ritual and wonder within and behind them has been drawn out, amplified and contextualised.

The event highlights some provocative tensions. There are moments when it seems to become clear that here was an exploitative, colonialist fraud, only for Gauguin's projective, objectifying mythmaking around 'savage' civilisations to blaze, suddenly, into passions far deeper, far more empathic, far more self-aware and far more meaningful. There are times, similarly, when his clear misogyny - that fear-filled idealising/demonising of women that seems to parallel his attitude toward Breton and Tahitian culture - abruptly dissolves into a genuine, liberated/liberating freedom, into a rare understanding and sexual compassion.

Other ambiguities offer themselves. It's always problematic, of course, to separate art from artist and soap-operatic questions that arise - about Gauguin's relationships with Van Gogh, with his own wife and with his children - offer some potentially intriguing, if misleading, distractions. On occasion, the application of 21st Century values to a 19th Century maverick and innovator seems inappropriate; at others, it feels vital we avoid some disingenuous, 'neutral' relativism.  Inevitably, we find ourselves judging and condemning, even as the exhibition cautions against doing so.

As ever with the Tate Modern, the shadowy, menacing spectre of corporate enervation lurks and, as ever, there are long queues and frighteningly overpriced food and drink in the cafes. The experience manages to transcend the prosaic and the political, though, and ends up offering something rich and challenging; whatever one's conclusions about the man, and however we attempt to synthesise all the contradictions, this remains a neat, stirring, stimulating presentation of the works, stories and meanings of a seductive figure whose art and mind spring boldly to life here.