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.
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.
The centerpiece here may be the gorgeous Mata Mua (In Olden Times; 1892). It is, unfortunately, cast off into a corner and should have been displayed in a more prominent position. Nonetheless, it is stunning to see in person. The light and dark greens, squash yellows, bell-pepper oranges, tomato reds, and eggplant purples are a feast for the eyes. In Mata Mua, Tahitian women dance, play instruments, and worship a statue of Hina, the Tahitian moon goddess. The women frolic in a lush, idyllic landscape in the foreground, while purple mountains protruding out of an off-white sky loom over them in the background, and a large cross-shaped bluish-gray tree (the Tree of Life in this Tahitian Eden?) centers the canvas.
What may be most interesting about Mata Mua is that, even though the Polynesian religious ritual is the central subject matter, Gauguin limits the scene to the left corner of the painting and places the cross-shaped tree squarely in the center, subtly reminding us of Gauguin’s abiding interest in Christianity.
In fact, despite his fascination with Polynesian religion, and his dissatisfaction with Roman Catholic doctrine and institutional religion, Gauguin remained interested in Christianity and the Bible. Biblical themes and Christian motifs recur throughout his work, but are often melded into an artistically scintillating Christian-Polynesian syncretism. And his preoccupation with Polynesian religion is evident in the majority of works on display. Gauguin incorporated the Polynesian moon and earth gods into several of his artworks, and was fond of depicting Polynesian worship rites. Yet he was disappointed to find that this traditional faith was almost entirely expunged by Christian missionaries, who purged the island of graven images. Gauguin used pigments, prints, woodcuts, and his own imagination to reconstruct these religious sculptures, most notably in Mata Mua and in Oviri, the foreboding sculpture of a Polynesian goddess entirely out of his own mind.
Of course, Gauguin experienced his own paradise lost when he arrived in Tahiti and discovered that it was not the unspoiled paradise of his imagination. Many of his paintings depict not what he actually saw but what he had wanted to see. Mata Mua is Gauguin’s vision of paradise. He created the pristine world he wanted to experience, rather than the fallen one he had to experience. It’s a “romantic, idealized, but ultimately false” vision of Tahiti, say the MoMA curators; but though Gauguin’s vision of Tahiti was objectively false, it was entirely true in the realm of Gauguin’s imagination. And from the perspective of artistic surrealism, nothing could have been truer than Gauguin’s Tahitian Eden.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and rabbinical student in New York.