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13 Aug, 2010

Seen any good Gauguin films recently?

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I’ve been taking a look at some film representations of Gauguin. I remember seeing Lust for Life (1956) when I was very little and feeling so sorry for poor old Van Gogh.

Gauguin didn’t really register with me at all (perhaps I shouldn’t admit to that) –  but then his character was only on screen for about twenty-four minutes. Having watched it recently I was really struck by how good the casting was; apparently during the filming someone who claimed to know Van Gogh said how much Kirk Douglas looked liked him.

Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956)  / Courtesy Warner Brothers

Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956) / Courtesy Warner Brothers

I thought Anthony Quinn was really good as Gauguin, albeit on the high-octane, testosterone-fuelled end of things. And he had the look of Gauguin – stocky,  athletic build, strong facial features, and swarthy complexion – definitely not a delicate little flower.

Delving a bit more into Anthony Quinn’s biography, I discovered that although generally described as American, he was in fact Mexican-born with Aztec and Irish ancestry. Apparently his looks meant that he was often cast in ‘exotic’ roles, native American, Inuit, Arab, Greek, you name it! This definitely reminded me of Gauguin. After all, sliding into different personae was right up his street.

Great French poster for Lust for Life with a laughing Anthony Quinn as Gauguin / private collection

Great French poster for Lust for Life with a laughing Anthony Quinn as Gauguin / private collection

He was particularly proud of being part Peruvian, claiming that his mother had Inca ancestry, which he often played up when contrasting himself with his Paris-based contemporaries. In fact, the longer I work on this project the more I think Gauguin’s greatest source of subject matter was himself. He certainly had a talent for self-mythologizing (I know, we all do it, right?) – judging from his many, many self-portraits. None of them are what I would call straight-forward, whether it’s his expression, clothes or surroundings.

Recognise anyone? Paul Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889 courtesy Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, USA

Recognise anyone? Paul Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889 courtesy Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, USA

His features also have a habit of springing unexpectedly out of his paintings, carvings, prints etc. Look at Christ in the Garden of Olives. Recognise anyone? And how about in The Vision of the Sermon. Is he there? Colourful costumes, alter-egos and even animal forms – with all this identity shifting and role-playing, if Gauguin were alive today he’d probably be an actor…

Gauguin: Maker of Myth opens at Tate Modern on 30 September. Book tickets online or become a Tate Member or Tate Patron.

Read the original post on The Great Tate Mod Blog

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