Monday, March 31, 2014

Gauguin: Metamorphoses at MoMA

By Charles Kessler

I've seen a lot of Gauguin's art in the last few years: Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012;  Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in 2011; and Drawings and Prints from the Clark Museum last summer at the Frick had some Gauguin prints. In addition, I saw the major retrospective Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the National Gallery in Washington in 2011.
Installation view of the  exhibition Gauguin: Metamorphoses at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
But the current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Gauguin: Metamorphoses (thru June 8th), is different in that it places Gauguin's prints in the context of his other work and makes the case for the importance of prints in Gauguin's oeuvre.

I’m frankly not a fan of Gauguin’s paintings, especially his later work, the work he made in Tahiti. I find them crowded and airless, the drawing inept, the brushwork awkward and without expressive purpose, and his colors boring usually falling back on muddy greens with a contrasting shock of bright orange. 
Paul Gauguin, Hina Tefatou (The Moon and the Earth), 1893, oil on burlap, 45 x 24 ½ inches (MoMA).
And I'm suspicious of Gauguin's primitive exoticism. He was a bit of a phony. He claimed to be an “Incan savage,” but his mother was Peruvian nobility and he spent his early childhood in Lima. And he said he went to Tahiti to search for a lost paradise, which might be true, but mostly he wanted to escape his wife and children and money problems. Tahiti, as he must have quickly learned, was not the earthly paradise he depicted in his art, so I can’t help feeling there’s a calculated disingenuousness about his romanticized primitivism.

However, one thing that Gauguin got better at, as this exhibition so nicely demonstrates, is his prints –most of which he did in the last few years of his life. Line in Gauguin's prints is freer than in his paintings – it doesn't get clogged up by the clunky paint-handling and dense composition. And he is more inventive and experimental with his prints than his paintings. Using the same wood block, for example, several versions of the Oviri prints radically change because of the way they are inked, the size, color and texture of the paper, and by the additions of color.  
Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1894, five versions from the same woodcut block, each approximately 8 x 4 ¾ inches.
Best of all, his prints aren’t dependent on exotic subject matter, but rather they are explorations of the printing medium itself. To this end he recycled old images from his paintings, from other prints, and from his sculpture (see below). Ironically, these prints are more authentically mysterious and haunting than his self-consciously exotic paintings.
Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1984, partly enameled stoneware, 29 ½ x 7 ½ x 10 ⅝ inches (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
My favorite Gauguin prints are his last ones, the ones he did using a technique called oil transfer. He would coat a sheet of paper with printers ink and place a blank sheet over that and draw on it, transferring the ink to the back of the paper, making a two-sided print/drawing. Then he would work further into the print with other mediums like charcoal or crayon. The result is an ephemeral, ghost-like image.
Paul Gauguin, Left: Crouching Tahitian Woman Seen From The Back, c. 1901-2, oil transfer drawing with crayon additions,  sheet: 12 ½ x 10 3/16 inches (private collection); Right: Animal Studies, 1901-02, oil transfer drawing in black and red on thin wove paper laid down on wove paper, sheet: 12 9/16 x 9 ⅞ inches (NGA, Washington).
This MoMA exhibition is one of those all-too-rare shows that makes a real contribution to the understanding of art, Gauguin's art in particular. See it if you can.

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