“Ultra Sauvage”: The Demonic Force Beneath Gauguin’s Color

Gauguin Metamorphoses, Museum of Modern Art (New York), March 8 – June 8, 2014

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Square Vase with Tahitian Gods (Hina Talking to Tefatou). 1893-95. Terra-cotta, 13 1/2 x 5 11/16 x 5 1/2″ (34.3 x 14.4 x 14 cm). Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen. Photo by Pernille Klemp
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Square Vase with Tahitian Gods (Hina Talking to Tefatou). 1893-95. Terra-cotta, 13 1/2 x 5 11/16 x 5 1/2″ (34.3 x 14.4 x 14 cm). Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen. Photo by Pernille Klemp

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:

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (recto). c. 1900. Recto: oil transfer drawing; verso: graphite and colored pencil, sheet 25 9/16 x 18 1/8″ (65 x 46 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (recto). c. 1900. Recto: oil transfer drawing; verso: graphite and colored pencil, sheet 25 9/16 x 18 1/8″ (65 x 46 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Head with Horns. 1895–97. Wood with traces of paint, head 8 11/16 x 9 x 4 3/4″ (22 x 22.8 x 12 cm); base 7 7/8 x 9 13/16 x 6 7/8″ (20 x 25 x 17.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Head with Horns. 1895–97. Wood with traces of paint, head 8 11/16 x 9 x 4 3/4″ (22 x 22.8 x 12 cm); base 7 7/8 x 9 13/16 x 6 7/8″ (20 x 25 x 17.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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.

Paul Gauguin. Oviri (Savage). 1894. Partly enameled stoneware, 29 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄2 x 10 5⁄8″ (75 x 19 x 27 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, N.Y. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski
Paul Gauguin. Oviri (Savage). 1894. Partly enameled stoneware, 29 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄2 x 10 5⁄8″ (75 x 19 x 27 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, N.Y. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski

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.

Why we can’t have enough of those beautiful Victorians?

Pre-Raphaelites Legacy: British Art and Design, Metropolitan Museum (New York), May 20-October 26, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Those wistful gazes and fiery locks, those petulant maidens in their rose gardens … no wonder we often see Pre-Raphaelite art as a guilty pleasure. In this day of post-modernism’s anti-aesthetic, it is hard to admit our attraction to its voluptuous beauty. The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design” plays on our yearning for the chivalry of a distant age, unabashedly appealing to a generation hooked on Game of Thrones. It makes us long for beautifully crafted objects of lasting value in familiar settings. At the same time, this intimate show reveals just how much the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was prepared to flaunt convention and refine the role of the artist. It invites parallels with the contemporary conception of the artist as transcending genres and erasing the boundaries between painting, sculpture, furniture, music and the printed word.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Housed within the Lehman wing, the exhibition makes you feel as if you have just walked into a London mansion such as the Leighton House in Holland Park. The domestic setting creates an immersive experience, allowing you to almost touch the fine paintings and furnishings that were such an integral part of this movement. Setting the tone, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Lady Lilith, (ca. 1868) draws all eyes with the magnetism of a celebrity sitting incognito in a boutique hotel. She has the familiar flawless skin and tumbling russet hair idealized in todays countless photoshopped magazine covers. Yet this Lilith prefigures Eve as Adam’s first wife, an ancient Talmudic woman associated with the primal danger of female beauty. Lilith’s closely cropped body seems to pour out of the canvas while her gaze remains self-absorbed and aloof. Her cruel red lips suggest a Victorian dominatrix.

Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The poet and critic Algernon Charles Swindburne called her, a “serene and sublime sorceress,” with “no life but the body.”[1] Like many of his fellow Victorians, he obsessed over women as either lily white virgins or bold temptresses. Here, Rosetti contrasts her alabaster skin with the blood red of her rose and ribbon. In testament to the Pre-Raphaelite belief in the synthesis of the arts, he also warns of Lilith’s fatal allure in his sonnet Body’s Beauty. Further alarm bells sound when you consider that Lilith was based on Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth, who was also his ‘housekeeper’ after his wife’s death. Later, he repainted her face in the image of the model Alice Wilding, possibly at the suggestion of his young patron, the shipping magnate Fredrick Richard Leyland. Today, it is difficult to see Rossetti and his cohorts as rebels. Yet, early critics declared their work “abhorrent” and the “ product of a diseased imagination.”[2] When the Pre-Raphaelites were formed in 1848, they strongly rejected the classical British academic tradition as rigid and vacuous. Focusing instead on Medieval and Renaissance traditions prior to the 16th century, they emphasized brilliant color as well as detail and line over chiaroscuro and classical models/modeling. Founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Rossetti, the brotherhood soon attracted the Oxford theology students Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The group worked with a number of distinctive models such as Elizabeth Sidall, Fanny Cornforth and Maria Zambaco. Whether as muses or wives, fellow artists and poets, these striking women with their wide-set light eyes and chiseled full lips fueled the groups’ notoriety.

In the Lehman’s handsome salon, it is hard to apprehend the ugliness of the new Victorian industrial age, full of soot, clanking noise and mass-produced goods. Smog – known as the London Particular- was often so great that you could barely see a few feet ahead. Rejecting the unchecked expansion of manufacturing, the Pre-Raphaelites favored hand-crafted artifacts that reflected centuries of tradition. Their new found pleasure in artistry recalls our own age’s fascination with street art, vintage clothes, hand-made crafts and even micro-breweries, manned not by poor immigrants but by Ivy-League graduates.

The Met’s show features the ultimate in hand-made collaborative design in the form of a Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones cabinet made of painted leather and wood with brass and copper fittings. On the doors, a man and woman leisurely play backgammon in a style akin to Renaissance painted marriage chests, known as cassone. In addition to furniture, Morris’s company sold in its elegant Oxford street store, “work of genuine and beautiful character,” including exquisite textiles, carpets, wall-papers, stained glass and ceramics.[3] Morris, its savvy owner and director, sympathized with socialist reforms favoring the poor. Ironically such an expensive piece of hand-made furniture would have only been accessible to the most wealthy. Like Rosetti, Morris wrote poetry and collected books and rare manuscripts. At the end of his life he founded Kelmscott Press Books, notable for its extraordinary engraved bindings which can be seen in the show.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition’s great masterpiece, known as Le Chant d’Amour by Edward Burne-Jones, with its languid figures in medieval costume, may appear staged and overly saccharine to the modern eye. Even back in 1877, the London Times poured scorn upon the painting, calling it “the strange and unwholesome fruits of hopeless wanderings in the mazes of mysticism and medievalism.” Fortunately for the Metropolitan, art critic Roger Fry, who also acted as curator from 1904-1910, championed this work. Taking almost ten years to complete (1868-1877), it depicts a lovelorn knight resting on a parapet while he contemplates an innocent maiden playing an organ as Cupid pumps the bellows. Set in a Venetian-style landscape inspired by Giorgione, Burne-Jones captured a mood of wistful reverie. The parapet lends a story-book quality that sets the tale at a remove. Known for his vivid palette and the precision of his brushstrokes, Burne-Jones had once declared, “I love to treat my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels.”[4]

The painting was inspired by a Breton love song, (Helas, je sais un chant d’amour) composed by the artist while listening to his gifted wife Giorgiana play the piano. The critic Walter Pater, who admired the Pre-Raphaelites, wrote that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”. [5] With his emphasis on mood and atmosphere, Burne-Jones may well have aspired to elevate his art to the level of music, which was seen as the most abstract, formal and pure of the creative expressions.

While the show is tiny, it draws from over 11 departments, marking an important interdisciplinary trend in recent exhibitions. This form of curating exploits the museum’s own stellar collection while bringing new meaning and context to its pieces. It comes in the wake of the great joint exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian Avant-Guard at the Tate and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Yet through its intelligent curating by Constance McPhee and Alison Hokanson, it manages, in one quick stroke, to lift the lid on a beautiful lost world and whet our appetite for binge viewing.


[1] Rosetti, William Michael and Algernon Swinburne. Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1898, quoted by Prettejohn, Elizabeth, Rossetti and his Circle, London and Princeton, 1997, p. 30.

[2] Harry Quilter, a critic for the Times, wrote scathing reviews, see, Quilter, Harry, Preferences in Art, Life and Literature. London, 1892, 6; ibid., Art Journal, 1864, p. 170.

[3] Rossetti, William Michael, Ruskin: /Rossetti:Preraphaelism : Papers 1854 to 1862, London, 1899, pp. 268-70.

[4] De Lisle, 1904, pp. 170-171

[5] Pater, Walter. The School of Giorgione, in Lawrence Evans, Ed. The Renaissance, Chicago, 1978, p. 139.