Stranger than paradise

Tim Adams is unsettled by Paul Gauguin's riddling self-image.

Tate Modern, London SE1

In his self-portraits, Paul Gauguin invariably viewed the world askance, his heavy features angled away from his audience, his increasingly wolfish eyes slanted back to observe the viewer. The pose gives him an estranging, sly character, and that is also the sense of the artist that pervades this remarkable exhibition (which runs until 16 January 2011). You thought you knew Gauguin? You didn't know the half of him.

The biographical details are familiar enough: the stockbroker son of a South American revolutionary family, Gauguin was for a long time a Sunday painter, but in his late thirties he abandoned his wife and five children in Copenhagen and took himself off to follow his vision of a life more vivid, first in France, and then in the South Seas. His mid-life climacteric led him to seek the company of Cézanne and Pissarro. Van Gogh, lusting for life and death, wanted to make him the leader of a post-impressionist revolutionary movement at Arles. Typically, he resisted every attempt to contain him.

Some of the most unnerving paintings in this show are those he made while his extremes of wanderlust were still just inside his head. The domestic subjects of his early canvases are always trespassed upon by disconcerting interlopers from other worlds; innocence and home are under siege. The sleeping head of his son Clovis lies on a table beside a huge beer tankard, and curious phantoms and winged creatures seem to take flight from the wallpaper between these two dreamy vessels. In another painting, his youngest daughter lies asleep on a cot with her nightdress hitched up around her, a strange black mannequin at her bedside.

Gauguin seemed to have become obsessed in this period with images of severed heads, as if wanting to remove and destroy the darker thoughts circulating in his own. His ceramics were characterised by the demonic little self-portrait of a toby jug he made, a decapitated vision of himself that could be filled with liquor. Elsewhere, shifty idols stare out from behind painted vases and fruit bowls with Gauguin's eyes and no necks. A side of ham on a platter becomes more bloody with looking than any head of John the Baptist. And behind a matronly portrait of one Madame Alexandre Kohler, the artist sneaks in a vision of a piece of pottery with three rat-headed horns rising from a weird hunk of meat.

The disturbing incongruities that you see in these paintings put all that follows - in particular the vaunted "exoticism" and "sensuality" of Gauguin's South Sea vision - in a wholly different light. The Breton paintings, in which he starts to find his Tahitian palette, seem haunted as much by a sense of complicated transgression as any liberation into colour.

There is a telling pair of paintings of the same coastal headland. In one, a field is being threshed. In the other, the wheat has been replaced by a young nude in the foreground, stroking a hunting dog, while the middle distance in which a family congregates is as blood red as Gauguin's ham on a plate. One painting is called Harvest, the other The Loss of Virginity.

What the exhibition and its attendant collection of letters and illustrative material demonstrate is that Gauguin not only carried all this psychological freight with him to Tahiti; he also took with him a riddling sense of his self-image, a highly marketable persona that he nourished and distrusted by turns. The paintings of native girls in their lost Eden for which he became renowned are in many ways a consummation of a struggle that gives all of his work its mesmerising charge.

What sets Gauguin apart from Van Gogh is his capacity sometimes to see the human comedy of that battle. This distancing irony comes across most often in the arch titles he gave to his Tahitian work - in his stunning portrait of two slightly knowing, possibly post-coital nudes by a riverbank, say, which asks (perhaps of the salon-goers back home): "What! Are you jealous?" The old demons are never too far away, however. The images of his sleeping children have been replaced by images of his recumbent lovers, and the person who watches over them has become a vision of death (characterised in Manao tupapau as a hooded idol, with Gauguin's own aslant eye).

The longer he stayed abroad, the less at home Gauguin seems to have felt. It is a slightly chilling thing to see the carved gates to his jungle house displayed here so far from their natural habitat. By the time he made them, in 1902, the year before he died of syphilis and alcoholism, he was depicting himself as a horny, clawed and crouching figure in the background to paintings such as Primitive Tales. He called his home Maison du jouir - the House of Pleasure - but, as this unmissable show makes clear, it was never simply that.

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This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis