Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey

De Young Museum of San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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The significant new show at the de Young Museum (one of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, “FAMSF”) explores the personal relationships and spirituality of famed artist Paul Gauguin (1848 –1903). Most of the sixty-plus Gauguin oil paintings, unusual ceramics, and rare, lesser-known wooden carvings are on loan from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (a museum near the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen), while works on paper and art of the Pacific Islands are from the FAMSF collection.

The exhibition is organized in roughly chronological order and follows Gauguin’s meanderings from his birthplace in Paris, to Denmark, to Brittany, to Martinique and to his various homes in Polynesia, where he died. The show is by no means a complete compilation of Gauguin’s prominent works, but instead shows the progression of his oeuvre from Impressionist, to ceramics and carvings, to the post-Impressionism and Primitivism of his famous colorful and design-oriented paintings. Although the exhibit touts Gauguin’s spirituality, other readings assert that his quest was mainly to escape the artificiality and conventionalism of European civilization.

In 1873, Gauguin married a progressive Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad, with whom he had five children. They lived first in Paris, but Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, and Gauguin followed shortly with his art in hand, which remained in Copenhagen. Hence, the subsequent acquisitions by the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Gauguin wanted to continue to paint, rather than work at other jobs and he returned to Paris to do so in 1885. The couple never lived together again, but Mette supported his career until their complete break in 1894.

Gauguin’s work as a French Impressionist in Paris in the early 1880s resulted in technically fine Impressionist paintings that are almost indistinguishable from those of other fine artists you’ve seen, including the two in the exhibit by his one-time friend and mentor, Camille Pissarro. In 1880, Gauguin painted his rather nice first nude, “Woman Sewing” or Nude Study,” which found no buyer in the sixth Impressionist exhibit. His “Sailing Vessel in Moonlight” (1878) is similar to work that Manet and Monet were showing then.

Gauguin also spent time in Brittany, where he painted “Still Life with Onion and Japanese Woodcut.” (1889). This affecting oil on canvas demonstrates some of the primitivism and unrestrained non-representational color qualities of his later works. After a trip to Martinique, Gauguin returned to Paris and produced some interesting ceramic portraits and vases including “Portrait Head” (1887-8), which was based on women he sketched in Martinique.

The elegant, serious, yet erotic 1891 “Tahitian Woman with a Flower” (Vahine no te tiare) is thought to be the first portrait Gauguin completed in Tahiti and was displayed at a gallery in Paris the following year. After Gauguin had spent two years in Tahiti, he returned to France and painted “Reclining Tahitian Women” or “The Amusement of the Evil Spirit” (1894) to pay an inn bill. Not much is known about the evil spirit in this exceptional work.

Toward the rear of the show is a wall chart outlining Gauguin’s intimate relationships, not only his Danish wife but also with some Polynesian teenaged girls and young women, some of whom fathered his children. Nearby is a video room with two similar videos by Yuki Kihara, an artist who works in Samoa. In the videos, some “third gender” Samoans comment on two of Gauguin’s paintings.

“Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey” succeeds in educating visitors through the progression and scope of Gauguin’s work, from early drawings to prints, to ceramics and woodcuts, to his better-known paintings created in Tahiti. Several pieces of Oceania sculpture, beautifully displayed, from FAMSF’s collection add to the understanding of the culture of the Pacific Islands that Gauguin loved.

By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved.

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