Thursday, August 18, 2005

Gauguin's Vision / Salesman

Even a confirmed (albeit heavily ironically distanced) populist such as myself feels obliged to attend proper culture during the Edinburgh Festival. So I've been to the National Gallery of Scotland to see this year's big Festival-timed exhibition, Gauguin's Vision, to answer the big question. This Paul Gauguin bloke - any good, is he?

In fact, strictly speaking, Gauguin's Vision isn't actually a Paul Gauguin exhibition. It's an exhibition about Gauguin's hugely influential painting, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling With the Angel), putting it in the context of the stuff which influenced it and the stuff which came after. In other words, you get (i) Gauguin's earlier paintings of Breton people, (ii) stuff Gauguin was influenced by at the time, and (iii) other people's takes on the Jacob/angel theme. And then, after that, there's another room with some Symbolist stuff, since that's the movement that Gauguin kicked off with this painting. Oh, and there's a genuine Gauguin sideboard too, for those craving a suburban furniture-based take on the subject.

I realise that some of you may not have a National Gallery of Scotland handy, or just might not feel like spending £6.50 to find out what the painting looks like, so there it is at the top of the post. Sorry for the lack of spoiler space, but it has been out since 1888, so it's not like you haven't had plenty of time to see it by now.

Now, I don't claim to be any sort of authority on the visual arts, mainly because we were never really taught about it at school. We had art classes for years, but they really just consisted of sitting us down and telling us to paint something. I was crap at painting (I'm slightly better at sketching, but we never did any of that), and pretty much found the whole thing to be a waste of time. I honestly don't even remember any particular tips on how to be better at painting, although I imagine there must have been some in the course of nine bloody years. I suppose in theory this sort of thing is meant to spark your interest in art, but personally, I'd probably have been a lot more drawn in if they'd actually taught me something about it. I mean, it's not like you do ten years of English classes that consist entirely of writing essays about what you did at the weekend, is it?

I felt much the same way about science classes. In theory, we were presumably meant to find experiments fun. I found them an utterly tedious waste of time. Let's all do an experiment. All of us. Oh, what will the answer possibly be? Could it perchance be the one in the textbook? In fact, the same answer as it's always been, every bloody time since the experiment was invented in 1706? Why yes, it could. Look, I'm all for teaching about the scientific method, but we don't have to re-enact every trivial experiment. I'll take it on trust, you know? I'm sure the guy who wrote the book has tried it, and he knows what he's talking about. I get the point, can we move on now? No, we're going to demonstrate the fucking obvious for the next twenty-five minutes. Brilliant.

Which is why I dropped all the sciences as soon as I possibly could, despite finding the actual subjects theoretically interesting. Mind you, maybe I'm just weird.

I'm wandering, aren't I?

Gauguin's Vision is the sort of show that's genuinely trying to explain to people like me why an acknowledged masterpiece is so important, something that can only really be done by putting it in context and explaining what's actually new here, and what it led to. To be honest, as an actual picture taken in isolation, it doesn't do much for me, although I admit to having a limited interest in angels and Breton puritans. But a bit of context does wonders for it, as it explains what the hell wrestling has got to do with Breton religious festivals (quite a bit, as it turns out), and shows us why this is such an important painting in post-Impressionism. Up to this point people are still basically trying to represent what they see, albeit in increasingly subjective ways; Gauguin is taking the subjectivity to such lengths that he's no longer really trying to represent the physical world at all. Not only does he seem to be painting some sort of communal daydream, but for some reason everyone's in a bright red field, rather than the more conventional green. Gauguin apparently thought red symbolised dreaming better.

The story of Jacob wrestling the angel involves Jacob wrestling a man and not realising until later on that he's an angel. You'd have thought in Gauguin's version that the bloody great wings were a bit of a giveaway. But then, it's not literal, is it?

It's the sort of exhibition that would be considerably improved by making half the public vanish so that you could wander around more conveniently, and I'm not exactly sold on the placement of Vision itself, which crops up at the beginning of room 3 before you've actually seen all the context stuff. But it does succeed at the important bit - convincing me about why I should care.

Over at the Film Festival, I've chosen the Maysle Brothers' Salesman to kick things off, a documentary from 1968 which is apparently "a landmark in American documentary filmmaking". I wouldn't want to go to my grave without seeing all the landmarks in American documentary filmmaking. I might miss the man who invented I Bet You Will claiming the moral high ground, and we couldn't have that.

Salesman follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen from Boston. Their job is to visit people who've been bullied into signing the list by the local church, and attempting to flog them a horrifically bling Bible which is the size of a breezeblock but with better illustrations. Particularly gullible customers get sold the Catholic People's Encyclopaedia as well. Instalment options are available.

The genuinely impressive thing about this film is that, without ever shying away from the fact that they're selling overpriced crap to people who could get a much cheaper and perfectly serviceable Bible from the local bookshop, it actually makes the salesmen sympathetic. They're clearly under horrible pressure to deliver from an utterly uncaring company (who are seen giving a terrifying "motivational" speech to the effect that the product is so easy to sell that anyone failing to make targets must clearly be shit). They may well genuinely believe that they're selling a decent product. They are, as Albert Maysles argued in the post-showing interview, basically nice people who've been sucked into the values of a door-to-door Bible selling system.

Paul Brennan, the focal point of the film, is a documentary maker's dream. Not only is he failing to sell many Bibles and getting more and more obviously depressed about it, but he looks like a cross between Paul Whitehouse and William H Macy. You actually find yourself rooting for the poor guy to sell some of his dreadful crap, as he finds himself lost in America's most ludicrous city, and tries to bond with two of his customers by asking whether they were beaten by their fathers. Some of his colleagues have equally surreal scenes with customers - a highlight is the man trying his best to make a sale to a first-generation immigrant and mustering all the multicultural savvy that a white guy in 1967 can bring to bear. ("My English is basic - I am understanding your point, but I am not good at English." "Yes. That is why I am speaking very, very slowly, do you see?")

The film has been dusted off because Albert Maysles is in town for an interview later in the Festival, and they wanted to show some of his back catalogue to tie in with it. But this genuinely is a fantastic film which deserves the reputation they're crediting it with.