Paul Gauguin – the French feral artist who threw away the trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle to forage and hunt for food in the wilds of French Polynesia…But is that version of the story really that simple? A new exhibition entitled “Gauguin & Polynesia: An elusive paradise” aims to challenge the root of the famous Gauguin story. The Danes are now claiming that it was in Copenhagen, Denmark, that Gauguin first got his taste for adventure. Ironically enough, the only reason why Gauguin moved to Denmark was an ill-fated, or perhaps fortunate, attempt to go into the tarp selling business (how capitalist of him). The enterprising Frenchman thus moved to the city with his Danish wife and five children, where he would encounter one exhibition that would change his life forever.

It was the year 1884 that Paul Gauguin moved to Copenhagen. Recent research from historians at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek suggests that Gauguin visited a South Pacific art exhibit at the National Museum of Denmark, sparking his interest in the colonial islands. To back up their assertion, the exhibition was launched featuring works and art from the Pacific Islands, juxtaposed next to Gauguin paintings immediately following that period. The Gauguin artwork features 50 paintings, while the Polynesian art is represented by 60 Polynesian relics, including tattoos, weapons, jewellery and statues. For Danish citizens, they are in for a treat: the Glypotek has managed to secure loans of some Gauguin masterpieces, many emphasising Gauguin’s transformation from middle class to Oviri, or the “Wild Man”.

Gauguin often referred to himself as Oviri, which literally means savage or wild man. The term was reflected in his self-proclaimed primitive art, where he skilfully combined observation and abstraction of the natural world. Thus many of his works deal with the inner feelings and conflicts of man. The impact of this can be seen in the Gauguin sculpture Oviri, completed in 1894-95. According to Gauguin biographer David Sweetman, the work was an icon for its single-handed influence on another painting master, Pablo Picasso. Picasso allegedly saw the work at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, who was a dealer for both the men. Noted British art historian and biographer John Richardson also noted this influence:

“The 1906 exhibition of Gauguin's work left Picasso more than ever in this artist’s thrall. Gauguin demonstrated the most disparate types of art—not to speak of elements from metaphysics, ethnology, symbolism, the Bible, classical myths, and much else besides—could be combined into a synthesis that was of its time yet timeless. An artist could also confound conventional notions of beauty, he demonstrated, by harnessing his demons to the dark gods (not necessarily Tahitian ones) and tapping a new source of divine energy.” Richardson recounts that Picasso played down Gauguin’s influence – but that fact was more a reflection of his legendary Spanish ego than the actual truth of the matter. The inner savage that Gauguin propagated and popularised had come full circle, with his motifs living forever in priceless artworks.