A massive Gauguin show at the Art Institute of Chicago puts the focus on the artist’s creativity in multiple media.
Paul Gauguin’s carefully self-cultivated image as a crude, snarling savage did little if anything to advance his career while he was alive, but it worked wonders after his death. However, it also caused some serious misunderstandings about the nature of the artist’s work. While his embrace of Polynesian culture, eroticism, and a vagabond lifestyle were indeed mud in the eye of the prosperous French middle class from which he fled, he had intentions that went far beyond mere tropical fantasy and épater le bourgeois.
One aspect of Gauguin’s work that has been largely overlooked is his interest in craft and materiality. More than most artists, he had an avid desire to work simultaneously in different media, both two- and three-dimensional—paint, woodblock print, transfer print, ceramic, sculpture, and even cabinetmaking—and his attitude toward these endeavors was not slapdash or dilettantish in the least but painstaking and even humble. He once remarked that he felt almost abashed before the task of painting, which he saw as the highest art form, and therefore felt more comfortable in other media. While Gauguin certainly didn’t hold back from wielding the brush to create massive, iconic paintings, he did in fact spend a tremendous amount of time and effort on other things, with impressive results.
A huge exhibition opening at the Art Institute of Chicago has been created with the express purpose of directing our attention to Gauguin’s experimentation in multiple media. “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” (June 25–September 10), co-curated with the Musée d’Orsay and the Grand Palais in Paris, presents 240 works, including the largest-ever assembly of the artist’s ceramics, to make its point. Some 150 of them are loaned, some of which have never traveled to the U.S. before, and some have not been seen by the public anywhere in decades.
The reference to alchemy in the exhibition’s title is an allusion to the artist’s desire not only to transmute natural materials into art but to physically get to grips with those materials, especially in a way that involved intense heat in a laboratory setting—the art of ceramics. It also alludes to his transmutation of symbols from one medium to another, a process by which certain images crop up again and again, though in different forms and textures, throughout Gauguin’s oeuvre. The artist himself expressed this quite explicitly in 1903, the last year of his life: “It’s precisely an endless kind of art that I’m interested in, rich in all sorts of techniques, suitable for translating all the emotions of nature and humanity.” Explaining his intentions, he compared art to music, which exists independently of any particular means of making it: “Love your instrument, but don’t delude yourself, others exist!”
The Art Institute is a particularly appropriate place for such an exhibition to be mounted. In 1913, it became the first American museum to exhibit Gauguin’s work, when it hosted the groundbreaking International Exhibition of Modern Art, also known as the Armory Show. It currently has one of the world’s largest holdings of works on paper by Gauguin. The most important retrospective of the artist to date, “The Art of Paul Gauguin,” was held at the Art Institute, in 1988, and marked the beginning of the partnership with the Museé d’Orsay (it was also co-curated with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.). The present show builds on the legacy of the previous one; in 1988, one effect of seeing almost 300 works side by side was to raise awareness of the Gauguin’s experimentation with different materials and what his goals were in doing so.
The pieces on view this summer in Chicago speak eloquently of Gauguin’s intentions, as well as astonishing the eye and mind. Earthly Paradise, a relatively early work from 1888, is a proto-Arts and Crafts cabinet, made in collaboration with Émile Bernard (it is Gauguin’s only collaborative work). The two artists (though mainly Gauguin) carved the surface in relief and painted it with floral motifs and figures that evoke Breton folklore, Amerindian life in South American, and Caribbean scenes. These “primitive,” folkish images, as well as the title of the piece, foreshadow themes that would become more prominent once Gauguin had settled in the South Pacific. It also shows Gauguin’s intentions to defy artistic conventions and break boundaries between media, as well as between “art” and “craft.” In this sense, he is a major progenitor of 20th-century art and design. Soyez Mystérieuses (Be Mysterious), from 1890, is a polychromed ceramic plaque that also uses figures in relief and lives up to its titled with its Symbolist-inspired heads and twining, dreamlike tendrils of foliage. The Singer (1880), an early experiment in clay, calls forth an expressive face from a swirling mass of primal matter, the fine features of the singer contrasting with the roughness of the enigmatic figures at the lower left.
In Gauguin’s ceramic and woodcarving practices, he liked to embrace accident. If there was a flaw in the clay or a piece of wood, he would incorporate that into the final product, sometimes coaxing a face or figure out of it—another way in which he anticipated the aesthetics and methods of 20th- and 21st-century art. In a sense, this deference to the material grew out of his desire to get to grips with it, literally, manually. Gauguin was in awe of the power of matter and its possibilities for transmutation; in an essay translated as Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter (just published by David Zwirner Books), he wrote, “Do not work too much after you finish; you will cool the lava of boiling blood, you will make stone of it. Even if it is a ruby, throw it far away.”
The exhibition is concerned not only with Gauguin’s physical raw material but also with his source material. The migration of iconography from photographs, news clippings, Tahitian sculptures, and works by other Western artists is chronicled, as is the migration of iconography within his oeuvre, as when a Tahitian deity figure or ti’i (tiki) that the artist modeled in wood becomes a ceramic sculpture and then makes an appearance in a painting such as Mahana no atua (Day of the God), from 1894. Some of Gauguin’s detractors called him a plagiarist or a bricoleur, a mere compiler and combiner of things created by others. Gauguin was by no means ashamed of his bricolage, confident that his creativity and personal vision would transmute everything. The playwright August Strindberg (also noted for his interest in alchemy), saw this clearly enough. In 1895, he described Gauguin as “the child who takes his toys to pieces so as to make others from them.”
By John Dorfman