LONDON – Paul Gauguin is best known for his paintings of voluptuous Polynesian beauties lounging in tropical jungles with flowers tucked into their hair.
But the Tate Modern's new exhibition of works by the French postimpressionist pioneer is hoping to show that there's more to his canvases than the erotic dreams of a painter seeking escape from European civilization in the South Seas.
The exhibition — the first of its kind in London in more than 50 years — challenges the stereotype of Gauguin, who epitomized the idea of the artist as the romantic bohemian traveling to exotic locales. Its 150 works attempt to show him as a storyteller, who used a brush and bold colors to depict a local Tahitian culture fast losing its identity to the modern world.
"I hope this exhibition will help viewers get past the assumptions and dismissal of Gauguin and his style and on to a deeper understanding of the story telling aspect of his work," said Belinda Thomson, freelance art historian and specialist on Gauguin.
Gauguin traveled to Tahiti in the mid-19th century, where he experimented with color. He consciously decided to create a myth of the footloose and fancy-free artist, in order to sell his work to an often shocked public — much as modern day marketing packages the latest actor or fashion model.
"Gauguin is an artist who created his own persona and established his own myth as to what kind of a man he was," said Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate.
The exhibition, "Maker of Myth," contains some of Gauguin's most iconic work, such as "Vision of the Sermon" and "Christ in the Garden of Olives" along with less well-known works and a series of self-portraits that show the progress of the artist's experimentation with reality.
It also includes letters to his wife and fellow colleagues, which show an abundance of self-confidence and self realization.
"I am a great artist and I know it," he said simply in letter to an unidentified colleague on display.
The exhibit opens to the public Thursday and runs until Jan. 16.