The stockbroker who changed art

Art Exhibitions
GAUGUIN
Tate Modern
by Timothy Barber ****

WERE Paul Gauguin alive today, he’d have made a good subject for one of those “escape the rat race” reality soaps. A Parisian stockbroker who dumped his career (along with his wife and children) to pursue his passion for art, he eventually abandoned the Western world itself, taking himself off to the islands of the Pacific to live a dissolute existence – taking many of the young islander girls who ended up on his canvasses as his lovers – on the other side of the planet.

Tate Modern’s autumn blockbuster is the first British survey of his work in over half a century, and it’s a colossal show. There are hundreds of works, including woodcuts, drawings and sculptures as well as paintings (plus two rooms of historical archival materials) and it’s endlessly fascinating stuff. So stylised and recognisable are Gauguin’s works – the vibrant colours, the simplified forms, the cowled Bretton girls, the exotic Oceanic nudes – it can be easy just to marvel at their unusual beauty and miss the mystery and intellectual exploration behind them. Bringing so many of them together, one sees the variety and rigour of his ideas, the constant searching and excavation of narrative themes, symbolist tropes and dark emotions.

I’m not sure the curators’ rearranging of the work into themes with titles like “making the familiar strange” and “the eternal feminine” is that helpful – is a chronological retrospective so unfashionable now? There’s also much too much here to take in in one visit. But that’s only because this is such a rich, comprehensive look at arguably the most influential artist of his era.

TREASURES OF BUDAPEST
Royal Academy of Arts
by Timothy Barber ****

THERE’S a rather enjoyable quality of randomness to this exhibition, which covers 700 years of art history, mostly with works that have never been seen in this country before. All that links the 221 pieces on display is that they are loaned from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts, plus a few more from the Hungarian National Gallery, in an exhibition put together quickly (but very nicely) after a previously planned show fell through. That means you get everything from 15th century Italian religious works to Egon Schiele eroticism, stopping off at Leonardo, Raphael, El Greco, Ribera, Rembrandt, Hals, Goya, Monet and many others – including some excellent Hungarian artists – along the way.

It’s an exhibition one can dabble in rather than take in everything, and concentrate on works that happen to stand out. Not the least of those, for me, was the astonishing Hungarian altarpiece from 1512 that greets you upon entering, a darkly mystical mixture of painting and carving crowned with a bizarre, spiralling wooden crest. An astonishingly tender portrait of a man – titled St James the Less – by El Greco shows all the subtle power that breathtaking artist could muster. A pair of shady, rustic figures by Goya, rendered when Spain was fighting Napoleon’s invading forces, ripple with defiance. The final room of later art is a swirl of post-impressionism, modernism, fauvism and futurism, plus a blue period Picasso for good measure.

Everyone will find his or her own treasures in this happy mish-mash, which has been beautifully hung. It’s certainly a less wearying tour through the history of Western art than the National Gallery, and the perfect exhibition to bring children interested in art. Two riveting rooms of master drawings are alone worth return visits.

Films
BURIED
Cert 15
by Rhys Griffiths ****

BURIED is a near-perfect execution of an idea that’s both brilliantly simple, and utterly audacious as a film concept. A man wakes up in a wooden box, which he realizes to his horror has been buried underground. He has only a mobile phone and a cigarette lighter for company. That’s it, for 94 minutes – and it’s riveting.

Paul Conroy – played with skilled intensity by the diversely-talented Ryan Reynolds (no, he’s not just the heart-throb husband of Scarlet Johansson) – is a truck driver working in Iraq who, following an armed attack on his convoy, wakes up to find himself entombed. As he fights the urge to panic, he spends the limited breathing time he reckons he has left making phone calls to his would-be rescuers, his family and his kidnappers, who want $5m in return for his release.

Horrifically absorbing, Buried is like living in a nightmare for 94 minutes. Director Rodrigo Cortés’s bold decision to focus solely on the interior of Paul’s box is a brilliant one: we find ourselves trapped with him, sharing his sense of isolation, despair and helpless anger, his fate – and seemingly ours – hanging in the hands of the sinister, faceless voices that are his only contact with the outside world. The suspense Cortes creates is worthy of Hitchcock, while Reynolds does an impressive job acting entirely on his back. Hardly enjoyable but utterly engrossing, Buried is gutsy, relentless filmmaking and one of the most compelling films of the year.