March 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
Brush strokes from the masters

Painter Paul Gauguin put himself in the position of Jesus in his famous work "Christ in the Garden of Olives." (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

Sometimes he signed his painting with the name Paul Gauguin. But sometimes he didn’t, choosing to style himself on the canvas instead as simply “P Go.”

The name Paul Gauguin of course looms large for manifest good reason, in the pantheon of post-impressionist painting, as one of the true modern great masters, just as the new show, “Gauguin — Maker of Myth,” at the National Gallery of Art East Building, looms so large also, casting its grand and glorious shadow over the spring 2011 world of D.C.-area galleries and museums.

He was, in effect, a pedophile, slaking his admitted appetite for the nubile young Polynesian nymphets whose beckoning bodies and come-hither glances are the standard trope of the final phase of his work. There, in the primitive paradise he sought in the South Seas, in Tahiti, where he died in 1903, he painted these young girls as exotic and erotic Eves, tempting him in the tropical garden, having abandoned his wife and children, a refugee from his earlier life, on the surface at least, as a proper bourgeois stockbroker in the Paris bourse.

Yes, of course there is other work of the visual arts to see this spring in the area. And much of it is also great. But the Gauguin show, unequivocally, should be seen first. It’s the first in the region in more than 20 years.

Earl “Rusty” Powell, the NGA director, describes the exhibit this way: “Gauguin spent a lifetime traveling to distant lands uncorrupted (he hoped) by civilization, but instead of finding a real paradise, he eventually found it only in his mythic dream world, where reality ended and the imagination began.” And that was his genius, together with his command of technique and his breakthrough innovations with form and color.

The new show, at the NGA through June 5, Powell says is “fabulous” and “spellbinding.”

One eye-opening example, says guest curator Belinda Thomson — who calls Gauguin a “rule-breaker” and an “embattled figure, in conflict with others and himself” — is his “blasphemous but arresting portrait of himself as Christ,” a stunning oil on canvas of 1889, “Christ in the Garden of Olives,” from the period before he moved to the South Seas, when he painted in a small studio in Brittany.

The colossus exhibit of Gauguin of course faces some competition elsewhere in Washington, but two of its rivals are actually also at the NGA.

First, there is the jet-black gondola outside the arched entrance to the East Building’s new show “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals,” there through May 30. This is the first major exhibit to feature Canaletto, the 18th century “view painter” whose meticulous depiction of scenes from the city of lagoons formed a major motif of the English view of Venice. The show features 21 masterworks by Canaletto himself and 34 by his rivals including the arguably equally great Guardi.

The other NGA exhibit, however, is small scale where the other two are vast in either vista or vision. It is formed of simply two paintings, pairing two works by the little-known early 17th century Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen, yet it is still titled “Larger Than Life.” And it is. One of the paintings is “Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, 1625,” a religious scene obviously, on loan from Oberlin College in Ohio for this exhibit, which closes May 15 in the NGA’s West Building. The Dutch artist, powerfully influenced by the gay painter Caravaggio, brought the Italian’s style back to Utrecht where the Dutchman soon became recognized as one of the city’s several “Caravaggisti.”

“Sebastian” is paired with another ter Brugghen called “Bagpipe Player, 1624,” recently purchased by the NGA for a cool $10 million and clearly worth every penny. The latter painting is so very different from the Saint Sebastian and setting them side by side offers ample occasion for reflection on the spectrum of human possibility. See them both on the main floor of the West Building in the Dutch and Flemish galleries.

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