Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Uncollected Thoughts After Visiting the Gauguin Polynesia Exhibit

Yesterday evening, Mighty Reader and I took in the Gauguin exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Neither she nor I are what you’d call fans of Mr Gauguin, though there were some pieces each of us liked. The Gauguin works were mixed in with a collection of Polynesian art and craft items including war clubs, carved boxes, tiki figurines (and man-sized figures), hats, and a few other odds and ends. There was a turtle-shell head ornament that once belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson and is now claimed by the British Museum. Most of the Polynesian items in the show date from the 19th century though a few of them are from the early 20th century.

On the whole, we were not overwhelmed by either the Gauguin paintings, carvings and prints or by the Polynesian carvings and objects. Maybe we were just tired after our vigorous weekend, or maybe this stuff just didn’t send us. Part of the problem for me might be that much of the Polynesian art was actually made for the European tourist trade, and not for Polynesians. Which sort of puts me in the same camp in which Gauguin found himself when he first traveled to the Pacific: he lamented that the native culture was already dead, already falling under the barbarous influence of Europe and capitalism. Alcohol, venereal diseases and Christianity had infected the islands. [Not that plenty of the carved figures weren't downright alien. Maybe it's that the Polynesian art seemed downright unfriendly; who'd want that stuff in his own house? There's a large chunk of unexplored psychology here about how I am put off by artifacts from an overtly masculine, warrior-celebrating society.]

Mighty Reader observed that Gauguin seemed to have objectified the aboriginals he painted, wasting little effort on differentiating the individual faces of his figures. I agree with her judgment, and I also found myself annoyed at Gauguin’s anger when he returned to Europe where his paintings didn’t sell. He had been, after all, a very successful businessman before throwing his hat into the art ring, and he did travel to Polynesia in order to paint something new and different for the European art market. So he was as exploitative of the aborigines as the imperialists he decried upon his arrival. Maybe. I’m trying hard not to sum old Paul up here. I'd rather just think about the artist and not about the retired stock broker.

He could certainly draw. There were some pencil sketches on display and they were really appealing. Gauguin understood the solidity of objects and with just a bit of shadow or a thickened outline he could create depth and weight. In his paintings, too, I admired how solid his figures were despite the relative flatness of the colors. A lot of his paintings at first look like posters in four or five colors but when you get close to them you see how much depth of field he was able to achieve, how three-dimensional everything is, even (somehow) when most of the space is taken up by a solidly-colored drape of fabric. I have no idea how he did that, but it’s a subtle and marvelous effect.

In general I liked his colors, too. Thinking back on it I’m reminded of a display of fresh fruits and vegetables. Maybe I’m just hungry, though. His self-portraits, small images of his face, were good. He had a fine nose, did Mr Gauguin. Still, his art made less an impression on me than did his story, or what bits I got of it last night. I keep trying to recall Gauguin's paintings but instead I keep seeing Gauguin, working at a canvas. This is my own fault.

On the whole, I come away from my visit with the impression of a guy who got obsessed with something, with a style, a way of life—something he saw that, I don’t think, he ever really managed to capture in his art—and who tried to bring that whatever it was to Europe, and he failed. He tried to give (well, to sell) Western Culture something that Western Culture didn’t want and so in the end he turned his back on Europe, sailed back to the South Pacific, built a house and died, a failure. I don’t know enough about too many topics to say what place Paul Gauguin has in regard to Western Art, to Polynesia, to history. I can’t say he did the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands any good. I can’t say he harmed them, either. I’m pretty sure that he misunderstood them. I’m pretty sure that whatever he saw in them that he failed to capture in his own art was something that he imagined was there, something he’d generated out of his own desires, something that maybe nobody else felt. Or maybe that nobody else wanted to feel just then. Impossible to say, really. I don’t know the guy at all.


  1. Gauguin is one of my favorites. I love those paintings because of the richness of color and pattern. He's the Banana Yoshimoto of the literary world! Okay, maybe he's the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of the literary world. I also like a guy named Peter Doig. To see his works in real life was an amazing experience. I also like Rothko. I could stare at a Rothko painting for several minutes, but then I start to worry that I have a personality disorder or something.

  2. I like Rothko, too.

    Though I find Gauguin generally pleasing to the eye, the exhibit just didn't move me. I guess I was expecting some sort of transformative experience but somehow it all seemed small and sad. Perhaps that's a valid transformation, too. Hmm. It's not easy being a Philistine. Well, it is easy, but it troubles me.

  3. Rumor has it that Gauguin's works are best viewed outside in the bright sun, the way he painted them. I haven't been able to convince anyone to let me do that, though.

  4. Are there many Gauguins in LA? I know you have some of his early stuff from Brittany at LACMA and the exhibit we saw has "Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)" on loan from the Getty. I seem to recall that a lot of his paintings are in Denmark (he married a Danish woman). Did you see any when you were in Paris?

    Perhaps I'll go back to the exhibit here and ask to carry a few over to a window. Just for a minute or two.

  5. Sometimes if I can't bring a painting to a window, I bring a window to a painting. That's my advice for you today, kiddo.

    I think the last time I saw any Gauguins was at the Met in New York, but I also remember seeing some somewhere in Europe. It could have been Amsterdam, although at the moment, my memories of Amsterdam are full of Anne Franke, Van Gogh, and canals. And red lights. Really, I've traveled far more than usual in the last few years and much of it is a blur. I'm a home body that hasn't had the chance to be at home.

  6. Yeah, the Met has "The Siesta." I remember seeing that one.

    I guess I'll have to bring a sledgehammer to the museum from now on. Just to let a little daylight in. For the appreciation of art.

    I'm hoping that next year about this time I'll have been to the Hermitage and seen their Vermeers.

  7. Whatever I saw, and wherever I saw it, there were several of his paintings. It was a traveling exhibit, I think.

    Is Russia happening? That will be so awesome. How are the language lessons going?

    Vermeer has a big impact in how I view art and writing. Seeing that painting of the woman with a letter always brings me close to tears.

  8. This was really interesting to read, Scott! It takes a certain kind of art to actually move me. I'm not sure why. I do find it sad that you feel he was a failure, but hey, at least people know about him and can view his work. That's a bit of a success, I suppose, but probably not in the kind he imagined. I think that sheds some light on what we, as artists, might want after we're gone.

  9. I have no idea if Gauguin was really a failure. My mind just made up a narrative about his life after I saw the exhibit; it was beyond my control. And, of course, this sheds light on what I, as a writer, want while I'm still alive. I admit that I don't care about what happens to my books after my death. They can be forgotten for all I care. What I want is to be read while I'm still alive.

    Umberto Eco once said that any writer who says he doesn't care about his legacy is lying. But he said that as a successful author. If I try to think about my books being read after my death, all I can think about is the idea of my death. The idea of my actually being dead overshadows anything so trivial as a couple of novels.

    So mostly, maybe, Gauguin seemed to have been unhappy. Unhappiness seems like failure. A legacy seems unimportant.