The largest Gauguin exhibition ever held in the Pacific Northwest is now on view at the Seattle Art Museum, but it’s not the Gauguin work alone that’s news. Appearing at only two venues – Copenhagen and Seattle – the show includes dozens of artworks from Polynesia itself, a number of which have never been shown outside the region. Viewers are thus able to experience the full richness of Oceanic culture in a way that Gauguin himself never enjoyed. KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, adds his thoughtful interpretation of the exhibit and its curatorial program.
Hot-button political issues also arise. As a teen-loving, sexually adventurous white man living out an escapist dream at the height of European colonialism, Gauguin is a subject of controversies that never arise when discussing contemporaries like Van Gogh or Seurat.
To further confuse matters, Gauguin himself had numerous artistic personalities, expressed in an unprecedented variety of materials, and up to the end of his life he showed no signs of settling down to a single, signature style. Perhaps due to the often strained and uncertain circumstances of his life, his work also varies significantly in quality. Unlike the well–off Degas, Manet, and Cezanne, for example, Gauguin often had to consider the demands of the marketplace when deciding what to paint, and how.
The current exhibition, Gauguin and Polynesia at the Seattle Art Museum presents the artist in many of his complexities and contradictions, with the unusual addition of a five-dozen first-quality South Sea artifacts, the first time so much Oceanic work has been displayed alongside art by their most famous champion. The careful balancing by the curators of the two bodies of work, with exactly equal numbers of both, has much less to do with illuminating the mysteries of Paul Gauguin’s art (which could be done with far fewer such objects), than with showcasing Polynesia for its own sake, taking advantage of the crowds lured by the main attraction, who might never make time for such an exhibition on its own.
It’s great to see good art no matter what the context, but there are serious limits to how much new we learn about Gauguin from the juxtaposition. In the first room of the exhibition, for example, we see Gauguin producing exotic, “primitive” paintings and carvings which one might assume represent his channeling of Polynesian art. Except they don’t; the wooden dancer entitled “La Luxure” and the closely related painting “Femme Cariabe” were produced quite some time before Gauguin ever set foot in the south seas, and are in fact based on Cambodian bas-reliefs he saw in Paris the 1889 World’s Fair. Further muddying the waters (and not on view here), Gauguin applied the same Cambodian-inspired pose to a contemporaneous painting of a Breton woman in a French coastal setting. The artist saw no contradiction in coupling his search for authenticity with the creation of works that borrowed from an almost indiscriminate array of sources: there are images in the exhibition that reference Greek mythology, pre-Columbian archeology, classical statuary, and French contemporary art, amongst others.
The exhibition is also less than helpful in terms of establishing a sense of chronology and development, but there the fault is as much with the artist, who resists the sort of easy classification into periods which works so well with someone like Picasso. Gauguin, never the most consistent of men, tended to cycle between themes and treatments rather than “progress” in the strict art historical sense; the 1889 “Nude with Sunflowers” dispenses with intelligible pictorial space or rational scale, but ten years go by before we see figures again set in a non-rational environment (“Three Tahitians," 1889), and in the 1903 “Woman and a White Horse,” we are back in the ordinary pastoral, as though the more radical pictures never happened.
The paintings also veer between straightforward reportage like the 1891 “Big Tree” (the least remarkable works in the show), sympathetic and appealing portraits of posed female models, and most characteristic of all, Gauguin’s substitute, fantasy version of unspoiled Tahiti, one with only tenuous connections to the actual island and its people. By the time Gauguin arrived, missionaries and their colonial allies had imposed such a strict regime of western morality and inhibition on the locals that the artist was threatened with arrest for bathing nude in a remote stream, but his best and most characteristic Tahitian pictures often feature nude or topless women enacting scenes from an imagined South Pacific Eden.
As an example, the SAM show features several late works that depict Gauguin’s particular vision of Paradise, and they are amongst the show’s highlights. I’m especially partial to “The Bathers” of 1897, a woodland scene which features a subtle and splendidly non-literal palette of mauves, yellow, and green earth that justifies Gauguin’s description of color as a “profound and mysterious language, a language of the dream”. The picture emphasizes decorative pattern above intelligible space, with the four wading women arranged in a row like a sculptural frieze in a vague but shimmering stream; the last woman on the right, who fixes us in her gaze, seems a bit out place in pose and treatment. She is, in fact, the Venus de Milo with Tahitian features, a nod, no doubt, to Gauguin’s traveling collection of art postcards, which held equal sway in his imagination with local geography and traditions, Polynesian art notwithstanding. A full appreciation of this peculiar, subtle masterwork would require seeing it alongside the most significant of all Gauguin’s later works, the monumental Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? , which it was painted to accompany. Alas, this key canvas, along with a host of other equally signal works from Gauguin’s island exile, is not included in the current show.
The Bathers also highlights another fascinating aspect of the exhibition, and by extension, Gauguin’s importance to art history. Try as he might to be radical (“Everything I learned from other people stood in my way”, he wrote in his last letter), Gauguin’s painting fits squarely in the context of the Western realist tradition, with its nods to classical art, and adherence to conventional categories of subject matter: Still Life ("Flowers and Cats," 1899), Landscape ("Coastal Landscape," 1887), Portrait, and Genre.
In his three-dimensional and printmaking work, however, Gauguin was able to distance himself more decisively from the work of his contemporaries. His woodblock prints, given an entire room of their own, have a rough, uncouth intensity that is of a different nature than his painting, with the tikis and gods of Oceania come to life almost as though drawn by a native artist. When Picasso, a mere ten years after Gauguin’s Bathers, gave hideous, African mask heads and shattered cubist bodies to his group of female nudes, it made Gauguin’s respectful treatment of the Tahitian waders seem almost quaint by comparison, but it was Gauguin’s prints and sculptures and ceramics that gave Picasso permission.
The remarkable work of Polynesian artists here on view, and that of Gauguin are essentially opposites. The one art represents the culmination of centuries of tradition and continuity, a celebration of ancestors and shared communal values; the art of Gauguin, on the other hand, was one maverick artist’s very conscious attempt to break out of what he saw as an oppressive and outdated tradition, opening doors for radical new ways of seeing and expressing. “Who knows whether that little,” wrote Gauguin of his own work, “when put to use by others, will not become something big?”