Gauguin Metamorphoses, Museum of Modern Art (New York), March 8 – June 8, 2014
On viewing Gauguin’s visceral works in stoneware of 1891, the symbolist poet and critic, Albert Aurier marveled:
How to describe these strange barbaric, savage ceramics in which, sublime potter, he has kneaded more soul than clay?1
We, too, will be astonished at this less-known aspect of Paul Gauguin’s art. Part of the extraordinary power of his paintings is born out of his work as a sculptor in wood and ceramics. Gauguin possessed a tactile understanding of mass, outline and stance, and this is why his famed women and landscapes are not merely colorful or decorative. They have a bulk and believable structure that makes them breathe. As a sculptor, Gauguin turned away from classical models. He looked instead at “primitive” non-Western masks, Asian reliefs, and Polynesian totems and carvings. Fortunately, some of his rarely shown sculpture is now on view at MOMA’s Gauguin Metamorphoses exhibition. The brainchild of curator Starr Figura, this show explores the links between Gauguin’s prints, drawings and sculpture and his better-known paintings.
Raised briefly in Peru and then France, Gauguin (1848-1903) came to painting only in his thirties. Following a career as a well-heeled stockbroker with a penchant for collecting avant-garde art, he chucked his job (and his family) in favor of a more Bohemian lifestyle as a painter and writer. Flamboyant, irreverent and often broke, Gauguin was known to rub shoulders with Pissarro and Cézanne. By 1889 he was showing his new luminous paintings with their boldly outlined subjects as part of Les XX, a group of daring, mostly Belgian artists. Very little sold. To promote his work one year later, Gauguin launched his Volpini Suite zincographs. In this new printed medium, he paired down his painted subjects into highly flattened, stylized figures, avoiding detail and focusing on atmosphere and texture.
Longing for a more liberated life in the sun-filled Pacific, unsullied by European convention and industry, Gauguin set out on his first voyage to Tahiti in 1892. Still broke and barely subsidized by the auction of his artwork, the vagabond Gauguin hoped to set himself apart and win fame as a new breed of unorthodox artist. Along with his own drawings, he crammed his valise with images of the Parthenon freize, Cranach, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, Odilon Redon as well as South American, Asian, Indian and even Javanese artifacts. On arriving he soon began to record his experiences in an illustrated journal-cum-fantasy memoire titled Noa Noa, literarily ‘fragrant scent.’ Here, he described his subjects graphically, in terms of volume and line. When praising a local Tahitian beauty, for instance, he wrote:
All her traits combined in a Raphäelesque harmony by the meeting of curves. Her mouth had been modeled by a sculptor who knew how to put into a single mobile line a mingling of all joy and all suffering.2
His words evoke his own oil transfer Tahitian Woman with an Evil Spirit, which portrays a young languorous bare-breasted woman lounging on a bed. She gazes out with a trance-like expression while a leering fox-like figure looms over her shoulder. A deeply engraved shadow in the form of an arch unifies the figures, casting a strange and ominous mood over this oneiric scene.
Gauguin achieved this startling and haunting effect through his own inventive transfer technique. First laying out a sheet of paper covered with printers ink, he placed a clean sheet over it. He then drew his figures on the top sheet with a hard, thin pencil, causing the ink from the adjoining paper to adhere to its reverse side. Finally, he would flip over his pencil drawing and rework the inked mirror image on the reverse – a technique probably inspired by Edison’s mimeograph machine. In the show, front and verso are shown so that you can appreciate the delicacy of the line drawing versus the more sinister aspect of the transfer.
In turn, this strange drawing corresponds to a lustrous carved Tamanu wood sculpture Head with Horns (1895-1897), a larger than life kind of zoomorphic self-portrait, artist as fox, artist as demon. Gauguin drew upon the wood’s natural variegation to create an ominous stain below the right eye. From the very beginning of his career, he worked in wood, developing the tactile and formal aspect of his art alongside his painting. In Tahiti, he often went into the mountains early in the morning to seek out rosewood and teak with Jofeta, a young Tahitian woodworker. As they struck the trees, Gauguin became elated,
My hands became stained with blood in my wild rage, my intense joy of satiating within me, I know not what divine brutality… This cruel assault was the supreme farewell to civilization, to evil…I was, indeed, a new man; from now on I was a true savage, a real Maori.3
Gauguin illustrated Noa Noa with a suite of ten woodcuts (1893-1894), his raw scenes were inspired by local beliefs in powerful and often cruel deities. Using an unusual technique, the artist approached his block with a wood chisel and then finer tools such as a knife, needle and sand paper, as if it were sculpture. The exhibition highlights the many stages of each print, revealing how he manipulated the medium to achieve a more primal quality.
Like his many Symbolist friends, Odilon Redon and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Gauguin believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be understood indirectly. He shunned realism and Western technological culture and saw in “primitive” cultures a more innate and fundamental connection with the universe. Gauguin was inspired by a very French, deeply romantic idea of native innocence embraced by Rousseau and Chateaubriand and then by poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Unlike the pro-Christian colonialists of his era, he rejected the restrictions introduced by missionary culture and favored a return to older native beliefs. Yet, sadly, by the time he had reached Tahiti, he found the island already tarnished. Despite his intense productivity, just two years later Gauguin would return to Paris depressed and in ill health. There, he often inserted aspects of his prints back into paintings, giving these works a new and often harsh hieratic aspect.
These transpositions are made strikingly clear in the MOMA exhibition, revealing the artist’s extreme sensitivity to each medium. From his fragile, poignant monotypes to his gouged woodblocks, again and again Gauguin pushed the boundaries. Given the show’s emphasis on the artist’s process, too brief mention is made of the artist’s fascination with Japanese prints and their relevance for composition, perspective and his intimate everyday approach to the figure.
Perhaps the strangest and most unsettling piece in the show is Gauguin’s volcanic ceramic figure called Oviri. His familiarity with clay began in the late 1880s, when he studied at Ernst Chapelet’s studio and was introduced to the rougher and more durable stoneware. Conceived on his return from Tahiti in a mood of extreme darkness, Oviri takes the guise of a naked woman. She tears apart a wolf cub while a she-wolf lies savaged at her bloodstained feet. Her bulging eyes and twisted form appear to erupt from the carved base. Gaugin empathized so deeply with this work that he asked for it to be placed on his tomb. Seventy years after his death, a bronze replica was placed on his grave at Atuona Hiva Oa in the Marquesa islands. “It is a matter of life in death,” the artist explained to his friend Redon. Perhaps it also expressed the Tahitian idea of appeasing the great forces of nature by a blood sacrifice, putting at last to rest Gauguin’s own tormented soul.
1 Aurier, Albert. “Neotraditionnistes: Paul Gauguin.” La Plume, September 1, 1891, 211.
2 Gauguin, Paul. Noa Noa. Translated by O.T. Theis, 1919, 34. Accessed 4/12/2014, http://sacred-texts.com/pac/noa/noa01.htm
3 Ibid., 52. Accessed 4/12/2014.