Gauguin sent a self-portrait to Van Gogh in 1888. He wore, he said, “the mask of a thief, badly dressed and powerful ... The rutting blood floods the face, and the tones of a fiery smithy, which surround the eyes, suggests the red-hot lava that sets our painters’ soul ablaze. The drawing of the eyes and the nose, like the flowers in Persian carpets, epitomises an abstract and symbolic art.”

Gauguin as brute, alienated from what he called “the artificial and conventional”, is the recurring trope in the National Gallery’s captivating, difficult exhibition Gauguin Portraits. Greeting you as you enter is a large, shiny enamelled Anthropomorphic pot: Gauguin’s features petrified in sandstone into the furrowed grimace of an overheated monster. Half a dozen glowering painted self-depictions surround it, including Self-portrait with Yellow Christ, where he places himself between the recalcitrant stony pot and his canvas Yellow Christ on the cross, the painter as savage and martyr.


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