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Gauguin the Alchemist

When I read a biography of Paul Gauguin a few years ago, one of the many stories that stayed with me was from his time in Tahiti in the late 1890s. A legend has grown up that Gauguin was a sympathetic traveller to the Pacific islands, paying respect to the cultural traditions of the people who lived there even as he borrowed their iconography and symbols for his paintings. The biography related that he shacked up with a teenage girl, in a relationship that looks uncomfortably like a modern-day sex tourist's in places like Thailand and Cambodia. And in terms of his art, this is the kicker: apparently there was a celebrated old indigenous artist living quite close to Gauguin, but the Frenchman never once visited him or showed the slightest interest in seeing what the art produced by real "natives" might actually look like.

I'm not one to hold an artist's biography against him/her when I consider their work (see my last blog post), and I don't really dislike Gauguin's Tahitian art for those reasons. But seeing the big survey of Gauguin's work at the Art Institute of Chicago recently, I felt less enamoured of those paintings of Tahitian women lounging against backgrounds of lush foliage, their bare bodies surrounded by Tahitian phrases:

That photo is of a woodcut, part of the last series of woodcuts produced by Gauguin. It's rarely exhibited, and it was one of many things in this fine show that I had never seen before.I figured out that I find Gauguin's late paintings to be airless and claustrophobic, with no space between one shape and the next, everything pushing forward because of the equal tonality. The monochrome of the prints satisfies me more, allowing one to pay more attention to the drawing and the spatial relationships:

There were a lot of prints in the show, which I loved. I've been familiar with Gauguin as printmaker for a long time now, so even the stuff that I hadn't previously seen in real life still fitted into what I already know about him as an artist. The real revelation, at least to me, was his ceramic work:

I recall from the biography that Gauguin spent a lot of time carving and firing, and that he spent almost an entire year working with a ceramics factory on a scheme to make money via mass-produced versions of his designs. As the works in the AIC show indicated, Gauguin's ceramics were too personal and eccentric to appeal to a mass market. There is a combination of restless eroticism and dream-like improvisation that seems to move closer to his ideal of "the primitive" than much of his painting:


  1. Thanks for this post--I wasn't familiar with his work much beyond his paintings. Those prints are stunning!


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