The sumptuousness of the materials in the exhibition Gauguin Tahiti embodies the richness of Paul Gauguin’s creativity and vision. Deceptively simple, the exhibition is organized chronologically. Curators George Shackelford and Claire Fr�ches-Thory and colleagues have laid out the gallery almost like the twelve stations of the Cross, with representative, singular, and key oil paintings by Gauguin supplemented at each step with cultural artifacts, such as indigenous wood carvings and tools, ethnographic photographs, original letters and artist notebooks, ceramic pottery and myriad woodcut prints by Gauguin. Everything in the show contributes to deepening the viewer’s understanding and physical experience of Gauguin’s masterpiece (owned by the Museum of Fine Arts), Where Do We come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Near the start of the exhibition are two carved and painted linden wood panels–Be in Love and You Will Be Happy (1889) and Be Mysterious (1890). The panels mix art nouveau and Polynesian florid style. Eash presents a nude woman, one in side profile, the other from behind. In the former the woman holds her arms raised, one hand clasping the wrist of the other, as if warding off the threatening figures of death, of anguish or sadness, tormented souls we recognize from Dante or Delacroix. In the latter panel, the female figure appears to be swallowing her own fist and staring at a mirror image of herself reflected back to her and the viewer, a cowled woman with her palm raised in admonition, a shadowy presence of death. The shrouded figure of death appears frequently in Gauguin’s works, most famously in The Spirit of the Dead (1894), where it is the cloaked figure sitting next to the young Polynesian girl lying awake in the middle of the night, the girl supine and in a state of great terror.
Gauguin’s figurative paintings–the nudes, the portraits, the stylized pairings and clusters of Tahitians—often draws upon the austere nobility of indigenous New World art. The Woman with a Flower (1891), a portrait of the first native Tahitian woman to pose for him, bears a terra cotta face, blunt, noble, chunky, suggesting Peruvian pottery. Gauguin employs a primary color palette of bright yellow, fiery red, and thick blue. He had already rehearsed his vision of “savage” nobility in rustic studies of Brittany.
The jarring, deliberate mix of European and exotic is found in the telling imaginary scene There Lays the Temple (1892). This is a simple secondary color composition of yellow field with purple mountains and a medium blue sky in the background. A vermilion and lavender jumble of bushes spill out of the foreground, which is otherwise hedged in by a zigzag-patterned fence, ornamented with skull heads. Gauguin reconstructed this sacred pasture from ruins he had seen, of a culture and belief system which western missionaries had already purged from native collective memory by the time he had arrived.
“Art is an abstraction,” Gauguin wrote, “as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it.” Gauguin sought to re-enchant the world through his art. In Matamoe (Death or Landscape with Peacocks) (1892) he creates an exotic Garden of Eden, verdant shades of greenery rise layer upon layer from the foreground up the sky, a fruit-bearing palm tree crowning the scene and a lush, impenetrable forest growth surging in from the left. Earthy yellows and oranges break up the verdure, like almost living lava flows. In the middle ground, a hippie-like vision of a toiling native appears to be chopping twisting, serpentine-shaped tree limbs. Behind the figure a nearby fire sends up a thick white cloud of smoke. Further up and back, two figures (Gauguin typically placed women in stylized pairs) walk past a thatched native hut. The image is oddly still, yet pregnant with invisible South Sea heat.
In the foreground a pair of peacocks walk past. The painting has also been called Sleeping Eyes, possibly weaving a connection between the male peacock’s tail feathers and the symbolic presence of death. The image states many of the contradictory and enigmatic tendencies in Gauguin’s art: the rich, complex color palettes, the blending of “savage” (non-European native) and Christian symbolism (jungle as garden of Eden) in visual rhythms, the pictorial idealization of happiness—noble, self-unaware, sexually self-possessed natives. Gauguin identified himself as a “savage,” neither at home in metropolitan Paris nor in the relatively un-Europeanized native settlements, and he painted dreamscapes, seeking less to find than to create a vision of earthly paradise in the French Pacific.
To classify Paul Gauguin “merely” as an artist, even as the chief exponent of Symbolist art, transformer of the nude genre, master of the exotic landscape, the creator of his visual summa Where Do We come From? What Are We/ Where Are We Going? (1897-1898), or the champion of color, does not do him justice. Born into a family of rebellious misfits, Gauguin was a man of profound internal conflict and lived a highly contradictory life. His father, a leftist journalist, fled with his young family to Peru after the failure of the Revolution of 1848. Gauguin’s mother, suddenly widowed and with two young children, returned to France to a newly impoverished existence. The artist Gauguin, burdened by childhood memories both serene and terrifying, would spend a lifetime obsessively chasing, escaping and attempting to transcend the visions it instilled within him.
Like a hippie precursor, Gauguin pursued women, drink, and artistic creativity. In his self-portraits he poses taut-jawed, cocksure, and triumphant. A Lebenskunstler of the first order, Gauguin clearly took his own advice—be mysterious and be in love. The apparent inability–or unwillingness—to differentiate between fantasy and reality both doomed his tragic bohemian experiment in living (he died poor, alcoholic, and probably from complications of syphilis) and guided his re-enchantment of the world through his art.