Friday, July 21, 2017

Gauguin : Artist as Alchemist

It would be hard to find an artist more politically incorrect than Paul Gauguin. His work, as well as his life, can easily “appear to be a veritable encyclopaedia of colonial racism and misogyny" to either the titillation of the general public or the dismay of academics. The curators of this exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago decided to avoid those issues altogether, and focus on the artist as a craftsman in a wide variety of media. Which would be a reasonable strategy – except that his techniques in painting, wood carving, and ceramics were neither virtuosic nor innovative. Even his unusual glass transfer drawing dates back at least to the 18th century. So there’s a keen sense of failure about the show’s signage as it desperately tries to distract viewers from the elephant in the room.

Alternatively, we might also consider “Gauguin's use of religious and mythological symbols to tell stories….and invest his art with deeper meaning” – as did the 2011 exhibit at the National Gallery, “Gauguin, Maker of Myth”. That myth making begins in this show with ceramic pots that depict the Greco-Roman Arcadian memes that so enthralled French aristocratic taste in the 18th Century. As with the other avant garde artists of his day, Gauguin’s rustic nymphs are more matter-of-fact than alluring fantasy. His Leda is a peasant girl carrying a Swan to market. The piece is more expressive than naturalistic, but its eroticism is not overt. More erotic is his ceramic portrait of the wife of his friend Schuffenecker. Her face appears to be walking around on her two ample breasts. One suspects that the artist himself may have had something to do with the emotional distance in that marriage that he depicted so succinctly in the family portrait that hangs nearby.

It appears that Gauguin wanted to express something about the human condition, as well as his own, that was outside Classical stories and stylizations. He began by depicting the medieval world of the Breton peasant - painting his own hawk-like face in front of a Romanesque crucifixion. You just know, looking at his furtive eyes, that he was not going to take to Christianity. Then he moved to Polynesia – as far away from Europe and Paris as he could get while still being on French territory. Many of his subsequent pieces show the influence of South-east Asian as well as Polynesian figure sculpture.

One vitrine offers a late Gauguin wood carving, “Pere Paillard (Father Lechery)” (1902), side-by-side with a museum quality nineteenth century Tiki. The power, precision, and cosmic mystery of the Polynesian carving place it among the masterpieces of world religious art. Gauguin’s satirical portrait of his clerical adversary is more like an adolescent prank that imitates local art as it attacks an authority figure.

In other pieces, however, the French artist does seem to be sincerely addressing the cosmological questions inscribed on his monumental “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” That piece did not travel to this exhibit, but “Te Reriora”, “Te Nave Nave Fanua”, and “Manao Tupapau” also address conflations of spiritual and carnal hunger. They are on the cusp of being both beautiful and profound. Their dream like quality makes them look better when backlit on a computer monitor than when light on the surface brings out the physicality of their materials. Overall, the artist seems more concerned with an inner vision rather than with perfecting its presentation.

There is a rough awkwardness about everything he makes – as if he were eager to begin the next piece. But there is also the thrill of creating a new mythology that draws from European as well as non-European traditions, without being constrained by either or becoming too solipsistic. “Manea Tupapau” (The Spirit of the Dead Watching) does seem to present an episode from the artist’s personal life: a fourteen year old girl has moved into his bedroom. Possibly she is the somewhat reluctant object of his desire. But it also feels like he and the girl are just two of many actors in a cross-generational cosmic drama that is beyond our comprehension. It’s appealing because the characters exhibit a calm strength, dignity, and poise.  That is a contribution that Gauguin's figurative art will continue to make long after its exoticism has worn off.

Many of Gauguin's paintings found on the internet, however, seem to be more like pin-up girlie pictures. I'm sure there was a market for it back in Paris.   Only a few, like the one shown above,  accompanied this exhibit.

Many more examples, however, are shown of a narrative genre that is neither mythic nor erotic fantasy. If the artist could have taken color photographs, he might have preferred to use that media to show the world that he was discovering.  Like the American artists who were then going west to depict the lives of American Indians, Gauguin often seems more interested in documentation than in painting.

Perhaps a Gauguin retrospective should just be called "Gauguin: Twenty-Five Years of Making Stuff" - and then discuss relevant issues on a piece-by-piece basis - which is often what the signage in this exhibit is doing anyway.


Portrait of Emil Gauguin, 1877

This marble bust is one of the more remarkable pieces in the show - even if it's formal qualities are more appropriate for a cemetery than an art museum.

According to gallery signage, this is the second stone carving that Gauguin ever worked on - and the first that he worked on by himself (with supervision).

He never attended an art school - and apparently didn't need to.  He learned how to do things rather quickly.

Here's one of my favorite pieces in the show -- along with the exhibition signage which, one may note, does not especially relate to "artist as alchemist"

The text is quite informative - though it does not notice, as Stephen Eisenman did, that it is nearly homoerotic - as the narrow-hipped reclining nude only shows us her buttocks and face.

It also does not discuss the social context wherein a naked thirteen year old is in the bedroom of an itinerant Frenchman.

The legal  consequences of a sexual relationship between a European colonial and a young native  are explored by the Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, in his "Buru Quartet".

Here's a  portrait of the same girl - more straight laced this  time - and more like a young person who does what she's been told. Galley signage fills us in on the iconography behind her.

This piece is in the Art Institute's permanent collection -- so I must have walked past it several hundred times.  But it never caught my eye. It still only interests me for its subject matter.


Here is Stephen Eisenman's review published in Art in America. He suggests that rather than working like an alchemist who turns dirt into gold, Gauguin did the reverse.  And I would agree - except, of course, for the fact that his paintings are worth far more than their constituent materials.

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