Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900), oil transfer drawing, 22-1/16″ x 17-13/16″; courtesy a Private Collection and The Museum of Modern Art
* * *
An assignment I give my students at Pratt Institute is to make a list of ten artists whose work they dislike or don’t understand. The lesson is intended to generate discussions about artistic merit, the quiddities of taste, and (as one young wag put it) “walking a mile in Jeff Koons’s shoes.” Koons has topped these lists for some time, as have others of neo-Duchampian ilk. The original Duchampian, Marcel, pops up regularly, as do sundry Minimalists and a number of abstractionists—usually under the rubric of “a kid could paint that.” A frequent figure on these pedagogical hit lists is Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Surely there are artists more deserving of undergraduate ire than the French Post-Impressionist? It turns out Gauguin is admonished for a number of things: arbitrary color choices, an inconsistent navigation of pictorial space, halting draftsmanship, ungainly surfaces (Gauguin preferred working on coarsely woven canvases), and cultural naiveté—the whole “primitivist” excursion to Tahiti.
It’s tempting to dismiss Gauguin’s inclusion to a youthful lack of sophistication, but even sophomores are right sometimes. Gauguin is a nettlesome figure and, as such, an artist deserving of skepticism. It was, I believe, the British painter and critic Patrick Heron who dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter”: an acknowledgment of Gauguin’s primacy as Modernist antecedent—Fauvism is inconceivable without his example, as is Expressionism—while intimating the limitations of his accomplishment. You can chalk up Gauguin’s failings to his being self-taught—the paintings are rarely fluid in their depiction of the human form—but this likely made him less skittish about taking pictorial liberties, particularly with color. (A surfeit of chutzpah didn’t hurt either.) The Museum of Modern Art’s first monographic exhibition dedicated to Gauguin, “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” offers contemporary audiences an opportunity to commune with this frustrating and vital figure.
Just don’t expect a full retrospective. Like the Magritte exhibition MOMA mounted last fall, “Metamorphoses” is selective in its purview. A handful of paintings—some of them iconographic, a few rarely seen—are on view, but Gauguin’s works on paper, especially his prints and transfer drawings, predominate, with three-dimensional pieces in wood and clay providing a notable backdrop. Did the current vogue for inter-disciplinarity inspire the decision to highlight Gauguin, the man of many mediums? Whatever the case, the results are scholarly and often bracingly intimate. While MOMA’s claim that Gauguin “more than any other major artist of his generation . . . drew inspiration from working across mediums” is curatorial hype—you’d think these folks had never heard of Edgar Degas—still, the exhibition does make an “arguable” case for Gauguin’s “innovative” approach to working on paper. As laid out at MOMA, Gauguin’s experiments in woodblock printing are considerably more evocative than the signature works on canvas.
Paul Gauguin, Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land): From Noa Noa (Fragrance) (1893-94), woodcut printed in color on wove paper, line in silk; 13-3/4″ x 8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art
* * *
Paper, because of its immediacy and relative disposability, encourages spontaneity. The second-hand nature of printmaking, though bound to technical rules of process, has a similar propensity. Gauguin’s initial forays into the latter, a series of zincographs titled The Volpini Suite completed in 1889, are clubby in approach and not altogether convincing in their stylizations of form. All the same, they have an engaging story-book quality that mitigates their shortcomings. Woodcut lent itself more readily to Gauguin’s vision. Its graphic character endowed his distortions of form with structural rigor and allowed for elisions of mood that rendered Gauguin’s romanticism palatable. Not that Gauguin was a printmaking purist; far from it. The centerpiece of “Metamorphoses” is a series of prints titled Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) (1893–94), wherein the image of a “Tahitian Eve” is seen in four states and a number of variations. Part of their allure can be traced directly to Gauguin’s willingness to give anything a try in terms of inking, color, and detail. MOMA’s inclusion of the original woodblock is an enlightening grace note—offering insight into the printmaking process, as well as providing stark evidence of the artist’s hand.
Woodblocks for other prints are included as well, and do Gauguin the sculptor no favors. The block for Nave nave fenua has a sculptural integrity missing from Eve with the Serpent and Other Animals (ca. 1889), an oak carving hobbled by an unrelenting lack of malleability. Time hasn’t been kind to Gauguin’s sculptural homages to Tahiti. At this date, his totems and reliefs come off as ethnographic kitsch. The lumpish Head with Horns (1895–97), a beast-like effigy that may be a self-portrait, doesn’t rise to the occasion of generic folk art. Gauguin’s appropriation of stylistic motifs native to Tahiti are just that: appropriations. There’s no reinvention, just brute imitation. Gauguin’s ceramics are marginally better: Cup Decorated with the Figure of a Bathing Girl (1887–88) has a lovely, lilting rhythm. Even so, it can’t touch the eerie atmosphere that accrues in Gauguin’s watercolor monotypes and oil transfer drawings, the latter of which is a process that can be likened to carbon copies. Lightness of touch isn’t something we necessarily associate with this artist, but there’s a ghostly ease to Marquesan Landscape with Figure (1902) and the everyday reverie that is Two Tahitian Women with Flowers and Fruit (ca. 1899), a fragmentary scene of harvesting. Paper, in Gauguin’s case, engendered poetry. “Metamorphoses” contains not a few moments of unalloyed beauty.
Paul Gauguin, circa 1891
* * *
What about Gauguin the self-proclaimed savage, the man who quit his job as stock-broker and abandoned his family in the hopes of accessing “authentic” reality in Tahiti? Notwithstanding “The Primitivist’s Dilemma,” a blandly lugubrious catalogue essay by Hal Foster, Gauguin’s role as “cultural interloper” is underplayed. A degree of political correctness informs “Metamorphoses” but doesn’t define it. If there’s one Herculean task MOMA has accomplished, it is in downplaying this most arrant of egotists. The myth Gauguin manufactured around himself will remain potent, no doubt; myths have a way of sticking around. But the exhibition’s emphasis on the particularities of technique and how they bolster vision puts the spotlight squarely on art. Which proves that an institution as fraught with contradictions, prone to fashion, and obsessed with box office as the Museum of Modern Art can still deliver the goods. “Metamorphoses” is a reminder that a trip to 53rd Street need not be a duty; that it can, in fact, be a pleasure, a necessity, and a treat.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review was originally published in the April 2014 edition of The New Criterion.