Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Consideration of Gauguin and the Recent Exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

"Maruru" (Offerings of Gratitude), from Gauguin's print series "Noa Noa," 1893 - 94.
A major exhibition that covers a significant period in a major artist's career can provide the perfect opportunity to consider their work anew, both individual pieces and as part of a larger body, too.  A well put together show should bring the big ideas and themes that animate the work into sharper focus, too.  And a great artist's career is about the evolution of the ideas and principles that constitute their aesthetic vision:  As is the case with Gauguin, who is one of the most interesting and audacious post impressionist artists.  And just how so, was apparent in the recent exhibition "Gauguin:  Metamorphosis" at the Museum of Modern Art.  It featured his prints and sculptures, which admittedly surprised me at first; because I've always thought of Gauguin as a painter, period.  The prints are of interest, though.  They encapsulate the major themes and motifs that appear throughout Gauguin's oeuvre; and show how he reworked and developed his motifs, familiar to most from his paintings.  The prints are also beautiful works of art in their own right; although, they lack the paintings' vibrant color.  They are, instead, quite dark and monochromatic:  Individual images merge with like-hued surroundings, giving them an ambiguous, enigmatic quality.

Also of interest, and as this show made clear, is the extent to which Gauguin's personal life and artistic career are inextricably intertwined, his life and pursuits serving both as subject matter and selling point too:  Gauguin engaged in a certain amount of self-mythologizing, portraying himself as having turned his back on civilization.  He seems to have wanted to portray himself as having forsaken Europe and European ways; as having turned into a "savage," living amongst "savages."  Indeed, one of the centerpieces of the show was a sculpture of a wild looking woman stomping a wolf and twisting its pup, which Gauguin reportedly intended as a metaphorical self-portrait.  All that gives his life a performance art-like aspect.  (I've read that an ailing Gauguin wanted to return to France before he died, but was persuaded not to because it would have spoilt the larger-than-life legend he had created surrounding himself and life.)
"Auti Te Pape" (Women at the River),
 from the Suite Noa Noa, 1893 - 94.

As could be seen from the show, Gauguin did largely reject European conventions both personally and in his art, in favor of freer, more sensuous ways, which he sought first in the Caribbean and lastly in Polynesia.  There Gauguin seems to have found what he was looking for:  Freedom from the constraints of European mores.  (In Polynesia Gauguin had several mistresses and a few children out-of-wedlock too.) In his artwork, Gauguin portrays Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands largely as an earthly paradise, not yet spoilt by the corrupting influence of civilization; as a realm where the sensual and spiritual naturally coexist.  That view of Polynesia as more primitive, as less socially evolved, is condescending and very Eurocentric----ironically, given Gauguin's repudiation of European mores.  But then again, his art isn't meant to be an objective treatise on any society or culture; instead it is all about subjective expression:  His imagery, largely archetypal representations of his own invention; his Tahitian scenery, largely mental landscapes.  (I've read that Gauguin's art was a source of inspiration for some of the Abstract Expressionists, whose art dealt with Jungian archetypes and the subconscious.)

Gauguin rejected the Realism of the Impressionists early on in his career.  Opting for a subjective aesthetic.  Along with Emile Bernard, he developed Synthetism, characterized by flat shapes and vibrant colors.  The style, so well known from his Tahitian paintings, is meant to convey the subjectivity of remembered experience rather than the neutral objectivity that is inferred when art is made from direct observation.  While they lack the vibrant color of his paintings, the prints, as well as the sculptures, reveal Gauguin's conscious development of  his unique art form; replete with his own symbolism and imagery, including semi-made up religious iconography----borrowed from various sources, including Buddhism, Christianity and Tahitian mythology.
"Nave Nave Fenua" (Delightful
Land), 1893 - 94.

There are three print series in the exhibition, which Gauguin conceived of in narrative terms, of which my favorite is the so-called "Noa Noa" series, which, according to the exhibition's accompanying text, Gauguin produced with the hope of creating an appreciation for his early Tahitian paintings.  (Apparently, they were not an immediate hit with the Parisian art market.)  The series serve as a summation, of sorts, of all the themes and motifs that appear in Gauguin's Tahitian paintings:  Encompassing something of a grand lifecycle, they range from creation to death; and include the aspects of the human experience that most preoccupied Gauguin-----love, fear, spiritualism.  Indeed, I was already familiar with most of the imagery from his paintings; such as that of a Tahitian Eden featuring a very earthy Eve, as seen in the print "Nave Nave Fenua."

In Polynesia, Gauguin's style was also inspired by the so-called "primitivism" of the culture.  That was evident in the show, both in the prints and in the paintings.  He incorporated many elements of "primitivism" in his later artworks, such as bold decorative designs and a disregard for proportionally correct representations of the figure.  In his prints and paintings all of his Tahitian Eves , for example, have disproportionally sturdy legs and large, somewhat prehensile looking feet, giving them a particularly earthbound appearance----they almost look as if they are holding onto the ground!  That is the case in his print "Nave Nave Fenua" featuring Gauguin's version of Eve----as well as in his earlier painting of the same title.

To me, Gauguin's art always seems timeless.  Perhaps, it is in part because it doesn't deal with objective reality, only imaginary entities and scenes:  Nothing identifiable ties them to anything in particular.  And, even though he used real-life models, the figures in his paintings are mythical entities or archetypal characters, not real people.  Also his use of symbols, motifs and themes----much borrowed from various religions----is, while personal,  also archetypal enough to be universally recognizable; and therefore resonate with a wider audience, across generations.  But more than anything it is Gauguin's obvious conviction in what he was doing, apparent in the boldness and steadfastness of his work, that makes him such a compelling artist.  I know, that makes me a believer as well.

The Show Ended June 8.  Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, NYC.