Visual Arts: Gauguin at SAM

This big show gives us the famous art, plus context, but not the man.

"Women? I like 'em fat and vicious and none too smart! Nothing too spiritual, either!" So says Paul Gauguin—or rather, the Paul Gauguin played by Oscar-winning Anthony Quinn in the 1956 van Gogh biopic Lust for Life. In a bar scene between the two painters, van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) is the shy, sensitive, troubled genius seeking love and acclaim. Gauguin is his boorish opposite, van Gogh's "lusty brawling friend . . . for whom no woman was too good, or too bad," according to the film's breathless trailer. After their intense nine weeks together in Arles, Gauguin would sail off to Tahiti to paint, spread syphilis among the native girls, and—the movie implies—win the renown that van Gogh would only achieve, and surpass, following his death. (Some consolation for Douglas, who lost in the Best Actor category to Yul Brynner for The King and I.)

That's Hollywood, not art history, but the day has passed when a museum show can ignore the celebrity image—however distorted—of an iconic artist. The fact is that Quinn's rather Zorba-esque Gauguin is part of his cultural legacy, one that Irving Stone's 1934 novel Lust for Life helped cement. Again, a novel, but hardly more a work of fiction than Gauguin's Noa Noa (posthumously published in 1919). Though that illustrated journal is based on his two trips to Polynesia, with some amazing prints seen here at SAM, it's also an advertisement for the man, an act of self-mythologization that cribs from other accounts and confabulates whatever would help his cause—i.e., to fund more travels and sell more paintings. And beyond those beautiful paintings, Gauguin is today the Parisian stockbroker who renounced his bourgeois life, abandoned his family, and remade himself as an island-dwelling bohemian. In this regard, while SAM's show is soberly called "Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise," last year's big exhibit at the National Gallery of Art had a more appropriate title: "Gauguin: Maker of Myth."

More than a century after his death, the tropical hues and fecund shock of Gauguin's famous canvases have been thoroughly absorbed into our visual vernacular. Native girls lounging on beaches, the ripe fruit and palm trees—these images are postcard-familiar to us now, and SAM's dedicated gift shop (Scarves! Jewelry! Handbags! A coffee-table catalog!) only reinforces the mercantile context of the art. Like everywhere else on the globe not occupied by white Europeans in the 19th century, Polynesia was a place to exploit. Whether seeking whales (like Melville), naval stations, or women, these visitors came, took, and then romanticized the ransacked islands. After a palette-busting prelude in the Caribbean (with examples seen here), Gauguin left his wife and their five kids and shipped out to Tahiti in 1891, initially intending to illustrate a popular novel of the day—The Marriage of Loti, about a French naval officer who falls for a native girl. (Hmmm.) There was a commercial impetus for this exotic voyage, yet one that unleashed an astonishingly rich and productive period of painting. Without it, Picasso and the rest of 20th-century art wouldn't look the same.

Even then, Gauguin (1848–1903) realized he'd arrived too late in the South Pacific, writing that "It was the Tahiti of former times that I loved." Just as Pierre Loti's autobiographical novel looked back to 1872, imagining a virgin Polynesia uncorrupted by the West, Gauguin would paint paradise as he wanted to see it. There would be no steamships or missionaries or venereal diseases. Europe and all its grimy, smokestack traces would be removed from his palette.

The first painting he sent back to market—which didn't sell until after his death—was the 1891 Vahine no te Tiare (Tahitian Woman With a Flower), whose subject is rather timidly and conventionally posed in a borrowed dress. What blasts through are the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue, which set off her startlingly non-Caucasian skin tone. It's a transitional work, painted in the Tahitian now, not the idyllic past. You could imagine a Breton peasant woman in the same pose, were it not for the tropical face and flowers.

By the time of The Bathers (1897), Gauguin has given himself over to his Polynesian imagination—a river scene of four half-dressed nymphs, garlanded with flowers, guarded by snoozing dogs, a vision of Eden in which the painter himself is the only Adam. There's not much personality and certainly no realism to these women; their features have been flattened and subordinated to the bold colors. His models have interesting textures, like Tahiti itself. Foreground isn't prioritized over background. Color, fertility, and organic essence are what's important. The skin tones aren't brown but nearly green—almost part of the jungle. Garments are being shed and, reading from left to right, there's an almost chronological regression at work—a reversion to the proud, frontal female nude of the Polynesian past. Strongly vertical trees divide the scene into a triptych, like chapters in a history book.

The primitive represents an idealized past. And Gauguin's transformation as an artist isn't only marked by his discovery of Polynesia; it's an explicit rejection of industrial Europe (except for the money, booze, and morphine). And while there are ugly aspects of sex tourism in Gauguin's escapades in Polynesia (where he fathered several children), he's no colonialist monster. He may have engaged in artistic "poaching and pillaging," as Pissarro criticized, but he saved his real abuse for his fellow Europeans—especially the missionaries. (See the anticlerical wooden idol figure called Père Paillard [Father Lechery], made to goad a local priest.)

To complement Gauguin's work (about 60 pieces in total), SAM presents an equal number of Polynesian artifacts rendered in wood, stone, feathers, bone, etc., none of which, unlike Gauguin's prolific output, were meant for gallery walls or sale. The problem with setting these alien-eyed Tiki icons and coconut bowls in an art museum is that they're not really art. They're examples, fascinating anthropological specimens from a time before Gauguin. The great Polynesian triangle—New Zealand to Easter Island to Hawaii—was a stone-age culture that existed for nearly 3,000 years before Captain Cook reached Tahiti in 1769. Within the following century, it was largely decimated by imported diseases, guns, and alcohol. French Catholic missionaries then prohibited native carving, tattooing, and religious practices; the women were wearing clothing and praying to Christ when Gauguin arrived—one reason he hated the clerics so much.

Sad to say, while striving for balance, these Polynesian artifacts don't add much value to the SAM show. Some of them Gauguin might've seen during a New Zealand museum visit before his second and final voyage. Similar objects were displayed at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, which made a great impression on the artist. You'd rather know more about his time at the fair (yes, the one that gave us the Eiffel Tower), which also included performances by the hugely popular "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" show, then on its second European tour. With its restaged cowboys-versus-Indians battles, that show and the Polynesian exhibition had much in common. Both presented traces of the "noble savage" vanquished by the white man; both romanticized what was by then a nearly extinct culture.

Buffalo Bill Cody was a self-made showman, a buckskin entrepreneur and rival of P.T. Barnum, who died rich and world-renowned. And it is his mythology of the Old West—inseparable from his name—that we remember today. Likewise, the very concept of "Polynesia" is a French invention that we now can't distinguish from Gauguin's controversial self-reinvention. As with SAM's previous big French blockbuster show (2010's Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musée National Picasso, Paris), that's the personal background you really want. But when you borrow expensive paintings from other museums, you're not supposed to question the artist.

Gauguin wrote in 1890, "I am going soon to Tahiti, a small island in Oceania, where the material necessities of life can be had without money . . . the Tahitian has only to lift his hands to gather his food; and in addition he never works. Where in Europe men and women survive only after increasing labor . . . the Tahitians . . . know only sweetness of life." All of which would sound more impressive spoken by Anthony Quinn.

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