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Paradise Found

The ideal(ized) vision of Paul Gauguin.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By DANIEL ROSS GOODMAN
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If John Cheever was the Chekhov of the suburbs, Paul Gauguin was the Cheever of the South Pacific. A nonconformist whose iconoclastic art would be used as a motif in the literary art of another artistic iconoclast (namely, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus), the Parisian-born Gauguin gravitated to the South Pacific, most famously to Tahiti, where he lived during 1891-93, and again after 1895. He was fascinated by the primitive, and he desired to visit places he thought were unspoiled by civilization and Western culture. 

‘Mata Mua (In Olden Times)’ (1892)

‘Mata Mua (In Olden Times)’ (1892)

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza / Scala / Art Resource, NY

Gauguin’s art is a showcase of the beauty of Tahitian life, and like a Tahitian Chekhov, Gauguin portrayed prosaic Tahitian life with a gimlet painterly eye. Gauguin’s art depicts Tahitians as they are sleeping, worshipping, and engaging in other quotidian activities. But whereas Cheever, Chekhov, Roth, John Updike, and other literary artists used their keen perceptive abilities in the pursuit of sober realism, Gauguin put his artistry to the purpose of imaginative proto-surrealism.  

Gauguin, who rejected European cultural and religious constraints, thought of himself as a savage in the eyes of the civilized world. Oviri (1894, his personal favorite amongst all his sculptures) and many of his other works were regarded as radical for a variety of reasons, not least because they subverted traditional, conventional ideas of feminine beauty. In this regard—as in his use of primitive effects—Gauguin proved to be a precocious prolepsis for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, which can also be seen at the Museum of Modern Art, on the floor below this exhibition). 

In the department of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Gauguin can occasionally be overlooked, and exhibits like this one and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2012 bravura “Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia” are ensuring that this will no longer be the case. 

“Metamorphoses” is not a comprehensive treatment of Gauguin’s art—his most famous work, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), is missing—but it is billed as the first exhibition to explore the lesser-known aspects of Gauguin’s oeuvre: his prints, his sculptures, and, especially, his inventive woodcuts. 

Gauguin was not only prolific but exceptionally innovative; his experimental, diverse, and unconventional approach is on full display here. He single-handedly pioneered an inventive use of the monotype technique (a hybrid between drawing and printmaking). He’d take a subject and reinterpret it by transfiguring it in a new work, in a new medium, over time. 

While this exhibition focuses on Gauguin’s prints, ceramics, and woodcuts, his color paintings should not be overlooked, because Gauguin’s use of color is extraordinary. The fantastic, perfervid Upa Upa (The Fire Dance; 1891)—along with Words of the Devil (1892)—is reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s vivid jungle surrealism. To gaze into its lurid, fiery display is to feel as if you were wading into a closed cultic rite. Gauguin could paint a still life like Cézanne and a pointillist gouache like Seurat. He is not often thought of as a great colorist, and while he may not have been Matisse, “Metamorphoses” illustrates that he may have been just as talented—making the fact that Gauguin lacked formal artistic training all the more remarkable. 

He was a bit of a magpie when it came to his subject matter. A pose in one of his paintings was derived from a 16th-century painting by Cranach the Younger. He was influenced by children’s book illustrations and Japanese prints, and several of his paintings borrow poses from a sculptured frieze found at the Borobudur Buddhist temple in Indonesia.

Gauguin was also a Miltonic mythologizer, and he created his own story of Eve. Indeed, the story of the fall from grace recurs throughout his work. In his 1892 painting of the Tahitian Eve—Te nave nave fenua (The Delightful Land)—however, the forbidden fruit is not an apple but a flower, and the reptilian tempter is not a snake but a lizard. (Snakes were not native to Tahiti, but lizards were.) Gauguin’s Eve is primitive, primordial, and much darker (not only in skin-tone) than prior Western depictions of Eve.

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