To all Paul Gauguin lovers: you have two choices to get your full morsels of the post Impressionist painter’s best exhibit this year: either Seattle, or Copenhagen. For the North Americans, and indeed, anyone around that side of the planet, you would really want to make it to Seattle if the dollar isn’t a problem for you. From, well, now until April 29, the Seattle Art Museum, or SAM as it is more affectionately known, is showing Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise that highlights the multifarious relationship between Paul Gauguin’s work and the art and culture of Polynesia.
The exhibition features nearly 60 of Gauguin’s luminously hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of powerful Polynesian sculpture. It’s organised by one of the most capable and respected organisation in the art world, the Art Centre Basel, and the Gauguin paintings come from some of the planet’s most snobby museums and bamboozling private collections. But let’s not hype it up just that much – Gauguin is only considered, after all, one of the world’s most influential painters for his evocative symbolism and distinctive palette.
As most of our faithful readers would know (this is something we harp on a lot here), Gauguin was an idealist who wanted to bring about a sense of timelessness and poetry into his painting that he believed was slowly being lost to the ills of bourgeois society .We’d term this chardonnay socialism, but look, for Gauguin, this meant that he could take trips to Tahiti, sleep with underage girls, contract syphilis and paint. His French Polynesia was largely the defining factor in both his art and his posthumous reputation, but most exhibitions have treated Polynesian art itself as merely a stylistic tool for the artist. This exhibition seeks to correct that.
Gauguin and Polynesia aims to contribute by following and analysing the changes in Polynesia’s artistic culture during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially with the impact of colonialism. This is not an easy thing to do, as any cross cultural analysis is inherently fraught with elements of bias. But if there’s one thing that the organisers pulled off, is that it allowed the artworks to speak for themselves. The balance of Polynesian art alongside Gauguin paintings and other artworks show just how much influence the distinctive sculpture and ornamentation in wood, shell and other natural materials from Tahiti, the Marquesas and Easter Island had on Gauguin, even to the point that one might consider him a Polynesian artist with French influence, rather than the other way around.
Evidence of this can be found in some of the most iconic of Gauguin paintings including Arearea no Varua ino (Words of the Devil, or Reclining Tahitian Women), 1894; Women of Tahiti (Femmes de Tahiti), 1891; Tehamana Has Many Parents, 1893l; and Faaturuma (Melancholic), 1891. If anything, the Gauguin artworks also underscore the artist’s European romanticizing of a simpler and more “natural” way of life.
But don’t take our word for it. SAM Deputy Director for Art Chiyo Ishikawa said the power of the collection was that it broke down barriers of culture and time. “For us, this exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to continue our mission, fostering a deeper understanding of seemingly disparate cultures through the art that brought them together.” And that is the very least you could ask of art.