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Art and artefact: this exhibition reveals Gauguin's curious use of Polynesian motifs in his art.

Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise

24 September-31 December

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Catalogue by Suzanne Greub (ed.)

ISBN 9783777442617 (hardback) 45 [pounds sterling]

(Hirmer Verlag)

'Gauguin &. Polynesia' brings the French artist's oeuvre face-to-face with Oceanic artefacts. This is the first exhibition that has assembled works from both groups in equal numbers--nearly 60 examples of each -to explore the influence of Polynesian cult figures and decorated objects on Gauguin.

Most exhibition visitors will come to see the Gauguins, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek has mounted an attractive display of relevant paintings accompanied by works on paper and sculptures (the exhibition moves to Seattle in February). The Polynesian artefacts are also displayed as artworks, rather than ethnographic material, in spotlit, spacious cases. Both groups are given equal space, although Gauguin's exuberantly coloured paintings inevitably draw our eyes away from the Polynesian material, crafted as it is from natural materials in neutral tones.

So what was the influence of Oceania on Gauguin? Polynesian people (usually young and female) certainly appear frequently in his paintings, as does the lush tropical landscape of the islands. But what may come as a surprise is how infrequently Polynesian artefacts figure in his art. This is all the more astonishing when one considers that Gauguin was not only a painter but also a highly innovative sculptor in wood.

Nonetheless, the show does present some telling juxtapositions, even though the links are often indirect and filtered through Gauguin's imagination. In his 1892 landscape Parahi Te Marae (The Sacred Mountain), a fence is painted using a massively enlarged design found in Marquesan ear ornaments, an example of which, from the British Museum's ethnographic collection, is displayed alongside the painting (Figs. 2 and 3). In Merahi Metua No Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents), completed the following year, Gauguin has decorated the background with Rongorongo glyphs, an Easter Island script, taken from a photograph of a rare tablet (Fig. 1).


When Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in 1891, French Polynesia was already a society in transition. He was frustrated to discover that his tropical paradise had become Europeanised, particularly in the capital of Papeete. Gauguin quickly retreated to the Tahitian countryside and eventually, a decade later, to the even more remote Marquesas Islands, over 700 miles away. Although he had endless opportunities to observe Polynesian rural life, traditional artefacts had become scarce by that time.

What is striking is that whenever Gauguin does incorporate Polynesian motifs, the inspiration seems to have come from farther afield. The Rongorongo glyphs were taken from a photograph of a tablet he had probably obtained in Paris four years earlier. In Tahiti he used few local artefacts in his work--the ear ornament that provided inspiration for his fence design, for example, had been made in the Marquesas. And when he did finally move, in 1901, to the Marquesas island of Hiva Oa, none of its artefacts appeared in his paintings. It almost seems as if Gauguin was only inspired by an object when he encountered it in a different place from where it had been made. As Glyptotek director Flemming Friborg observes, 'for Gauguin, the grass was always greener around the corner.'



Among important loans to the exhibition are the five pages from Gauguin's Auckland Notebook. These fragile leaves, never before exhibited, were acquired by Gauguin's friend Victor Segalen after his death in 1903 and sold by a descendant in 1992. Gauguin used the notebook in New Zealand while delayed on his journey to Papeete in 1895, filling some of its pages with drawings of Maori objects in the Auckland Museum--images which reappear in paintings done later on Tahiti and Hiva Oa. One wonders what happened to, and on, the missing pages.

An intriguing object, now owned by the Glyptotek, is a carved box with Marquesanstyle relief motifs known as 'Gauguin's paint box'. It cannot have been made by Gauguin--the incised design is much too methodically done--and so the carver was almost certainly Marquesan. Nonetheless Gauguin, the object's probable commissioner, may well have had an input into the design, which includes two almost surrealist, face-like motifs.

The Copenhagen exhibition includes seven sculptures by Gauguin, but it seems surprising that more are not on display--if only to point out the differences between his art and that of the South Seas. Although the features of those portrayed in Gauguin's post-1891 carvings and ceramics capture something of the Polynesian face, they tend to be stylised and bear little direct resemblance to traditional sculptures.

Other omissions from the show are paintings from the two major Russian museums, the Hermitage and the Pushkin, whose Gauguin collections are among the greatest after the Glyptotek, which has 27 paintings. Loans were discussed, but ultimately fell through because Denmark lacks the anti-seizure legislation demanded by the Russian authorities. Also missing is Gauguin's finest masterpiece, the iconic D'ou venons nous? Que sommes nous? Ou allons nous? (1897), in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and currently at a Gauguin and Van Gogh exhibition at Genoa's Palazzo Ducale until 15 April 2012, whereupon it will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (3 June-3 September 2012).

The Glyptotek catalogue, published in English only, is introduced with a foreword by Michel Buillard, Mayor of Papeete, which provides a fascinating insight into how Gauguin is viewed in Tahiti today. Mr Buillard points out that Gauguin liked to become involved in local politics, and even makes the surprising assertion that the artist 'definitely would have become a member of the city council' had he not retreated to Hiva Oa in 1901. The Mayor also adds the intriguing fact that Gauguin's son Emile, by his Tahitian mistress Tehamana, 'haunted the city centre as a familiar hobo until the 1960s.'

More than a century later, Gauguin continues to evoke controversy. Mr Buillard writes: 'Papeete, with so many inhabitants of Chinese descent, could hardly forget the painter's virulent attacks against their ancestors ... His eccentric behaviour should not be overlooked either, as it was shocking not only for the clergy, but for many a Tahitian as well, often hurting their deeper beliefs.' Yet despite these failings, Gauguin created his finest work in his Polynesian paradise.

Martin Bailey is a Van Gogh specialist and correspondent for The Art Newspaper.
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Title Annotation:Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise
Author:Bailey, Martin
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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