Friday, 4 April 2014

Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with an Angel) by Gauguin


Gauguin's lifelong desire was to present both the exposable and the hidden in women's bodies and minds.

(Location: Scottish National Gallery)
By organising its recent exhibition of the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) by theme rather than chronologically, London’s Tate Modern problematized the traditional divisions made between his paintings from tropical and French locations, between the apparently exotic and the apparently familiar. Instead what is foregrounded is his lifelong desire to present both the exposable and the hidden in women’s bodies and minds, wherever he found them.
Looking over the shoulders of other visitors in the crowded galleries to see Gauguin's bared and yet elusive dark women transformed the experience of seeing these pictures. There could no longer be the illusion of sharing an intimate moment; instead we were cast into the role of group voyeurs, uncomfortably aware of each other's presence as we jostled for a glimpse of these iconic images. We came late to a painting from early on in Gauguin’s career: Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) from 1888, where the voyeurism is also built into the painting by having us peer over the demure bonnets of Breton country women in the painting's foreground that attempt to block us out with their white blankness. So we are caught in a form of double voyeurism, looking over both real shoulders and these 'monstrous helmets', as Gauguin called these bonnets.

But it soon becomes clear that we are actually peering inside rather than past the women’s shrouded heads, seeing the vision that they see, existing on the same two-dimensional plane of the painting. This story from Chapter 32 of Genesis and Chapter 12 of the Book of Hosea describes an experience that happened to Jacob on his journey back to Canaan, when he struggled all night with a mysterious being. It has offered painters throughout the centuries, such as Delacroix, Leloir and Bonnat, the chance to produce homo-erotically charged works of art where a man and a muscular angel are locked in a struggle unseen by other humans. Gauguin breaks this mould by having this fight witnessed – produced - by the intense psychological state of the women, returning home after hearing a sermon on Jacob's encounter.


However, even as we see the vision it still eludes us. Borrowing from techniques used in Japanese prints, Gauguin works in flat blocks of colour and creates the effect of looking down at the wrestlers from a high viewpoint, which confuses our sense of perspective, so we are unable to grasp the distance between the wrestlers and the women. The hot red of the background forces the scene forward while the smallness of the figures throws them backwards. This disorientation serves Gauguin's consistent objective of exploring how a mental state, and overwhelmingly for him it is a woman’s mental state, can be simultaneously revealed and yet remain beyond the reach of the observer. The voyeur's desire to possess their subject entirely - and so in effect cease to be (only) a voyeur - is tantalisingly offered as a possibility in Gauguin's art, and then withdrawn.