Gauguin: Maker of Myth

National Gallery of Art

Through June 5

Paul Gauguin is best known as the stockbroker-turned-artist who left his family and native France for Polynesia. His work of the 1880s and ’90s is typically judged as being as unconventional as his life. Starting out as an Impressionist, he progressed to create more dissonant art through depictions of Breton fields and Tahitian beaches in boldly contrasting colors.

Departing from this standard viewpoint, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” reveals a more conservative side of the artist. Co-organized with London’s Tate Modern, this thought-provoking exhibition focuses on the thematic content of Gauguin’s painting, printmaking, and sculpture rather than on the development of his style and technique. Evident throughout the show are the artist’s old-fashioned interests in biblical allegory, religious rituals, and cultural myths.

Like the great masters before him, Gauguin saw art as a didactic tool to impart truths about the human condition. He abandoned the what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach of Impressionism’s naturalism to reinvest his art with symbolic meaning. This shift bucked the modern trend to erase narrative content from art and move toward abstraction. For Gauguin, story, fable, and tradition remained significant. Starting out as a Sunday painter and art collector during his years in the financial world, he spent a lifetime referencing art works of the past. Self-taught, he cast his gaze backward to draw inspiration from artists as diverse as Botticelli and Courbet, as well as folkloric and Eastern art.

The weary figure set within a landscape of drooping olive trees in “Christ in the Garden of Olives” (1889) was based on a similar painting by Delacroix. Scholar and curator Belinda Thomson, in her excellent catalogue essay, goes so far as to suggest Gauguin modeled his career on Delacroix’s, emulating his interests in literary and exotic subjects.

A few years after deciding to pursue art full-time—a career move prompted by the stock market crash of 1882—Gauguin sought a cheaper alternative to Paris and temporarily settled in Brittany. He became enamored of the rustic locals and their rituals, as vividly portrayed in the “Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel).” A tree trunk divides the canvas into the real world of praying Breton women and the imagined vision of the biblical struggle, while uniting them through a brilliant red ground.

In 1887, Gauguin journeyed to Martinique and, once back in Paris, visited the World’s Fair, where he encountered displays of art from faraway lands such as Java, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The desire to experience such “primitive” civilizations, untainted by Western decadence, led him to sail for Tahiti in 1891. Once ashore, he realized that the unsullied civilization of his dreams did not exist: French colonialism had corrupted and erased the island’s ancient culture. Rather than paint a modern view of Tahitian life, Gauguin adopted an idealized, traditional perspective, painting bare-breasted women and fertile landscapes to capture a bygone era. He depicted such “pure” native life as sacred by combining Old Testament and Polynesian imagery into vivid scenes: In “Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil),” he depicts the temptation of Eve, substituting a sinister hooded figure for the snake.

Some of his most arresting Tahitian works reprise paintings by other artists. The reclining nude of “Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch)” is a face-down variation on Manet’s “Olympia” with an evil specter replacing the maid in Manet’s picture. The gold-saturated “Tahitian Pastoral” pays homage to the Symbolism of Gauguin’s contemporary Puvis de Chavannes, who cofounded France’s National Society of Fine Arts, the dominant art salon of the 1890s. In re-creating Polynesia’s lost culture, Gauguin often resorted to copying native artifacts from other places and inserting them into his paintings to invent religious idolatry. The imposing sculpture in “Parahi Te Marae” may be based on photographs of the Easter Island carvings while the ornate fence was inspired by an ear ornament. Carved tikis and associated rituals populating some of his canvases and wooden sculptures are inspired by 1837 writings on Polynesia by the Belgian ethnographer Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout—or simply sprout from Gauguin’s imagination. One of the more interesting sections of the exhibit is devoted to Oviri, a savage deity conceived by the artist in Paris between stays in Tahiti.

Aside from this two-year hiatus in France, Gauguin spent the rest of his career in Polynesia, re-creating its idyllic past. In 1901 he moved to the remote Marquesas Islands, where he would die of syphilis at age 54 less than two years later. (His home, called the House of Pleasure, was entered through a doorway framed by sculpted wooden panels inspired by Maori carvings that are among the standouts in the exhibit.) By the end of his life, Gauguin wanted to return to France, but friends talked him out of it: He had become so identified with the South Seas that to change direction would have meant losing sales and reputation. So he clung to the past, enriching his myths with strong shapes of pinks, oranges, and purples that would influence modernists such as Matisse and Picasso.

This exhibit doesn’t concentrate on that formal beauty but on the figurative narratives that set Gauguin apart from the avant garde. In doing so, it may disappoint some visitors seeking to feast their eyes on his lighter, more colorful paintings. (Several such loans from Russia didn’t make it into the show.) But for those interested in learning more about this celebrated artist, the National Gallery’s exhibit satisfies by illuminating the less obvious corners of Gauguin’s mythmaking in the bright light of paradise.

Deborah Dietsch is the former art critic of the Washington Times.

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