Review: The Trouble with Gauguin’s ‘Metamorphoses’

The Paul Gauguin exhibition currently on view at the New York Museum of Modern Art is aptly entitled “Metamorphoses” as it, for the first time, presents a clear picture of the ways the artist’s creative process often involved repeating and recombining key motifs from one image to another, allowing them to evolve over time and across mediums, from paintings, to woodblock prints, monotypes, sculptures, and transfer drawings. But, the title could just as easily refer to Gauguin’s personal metamorphosis from a bourgeois Parisian stockbroker with a wife and five children to a wanna-be native trying to recreate a lost paradise for himself in Tahiti.

Paul Gauguin, Maruru (Offerings of Gratitude) from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent)

Paul Gauguin, Maruru (Offerings of Gratitude) from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent). 1893-94. Woodcut, comp, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. Photo by Michael Agee © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

The familial aspects of his life are not mentioned in the exhibition’s wall texts, but rather that a portion of his childhood spent in South America stoked “his lifelong desire to travel and to identify with non-European cultures.” Many people feel the details of an artist’s life, whether extraordinary or troubling, are extraneous to their work. No matter how sordid the accusations against him, most people will still go on loving Woody Allen films. But, it was hard for me to keep Gauguin’s past from my thoughts as I viewed the show. The exoticism which is so compelling in his work is inextricably part of his myth and intrigue. How convenient is it that we’ve let history, for the most part, expunge the less comfortable parts of his story? The painter Balthus, who often used prepubescent children as his subjects (perhaps importantly, white, European ones), is still met with cries of pedophilia. A German museum recently canceled a showing of his polaroid studies over it. Would Gauguin’s work be so widely loved if more mainstream museum goers knew of his fourteen year old Tahitian lover?

Paul Gauguin. Oviri (Savage)

Paul Gauguin, Oviri (Savage), 1894, Woodcut, comp, Private collection

But, leaving all that aside, the exhibition successfully makes the case that Gauguin was much more than a phenomenal colorist. A number of his lush, brightly colored paintings are included, but the real stars of the show are his prints and oil transfer drawings. These sometimes darkly haunting works on paper demonstrate that his fascination with the South Pacific extended markedly past its dark and exotic women, to its peoples’ spiritual beliefs and symbols. Themes and motifs dealing with the origins of life, spirits, and death are often found in his paintings from this time period, but in his prints, they come front and center.

It is amazing to first look at his actual carved woodblocks, on display here, which appear very simple and rustic, and see the depth of subtlety, emotion and sense of atmosphere that Gauguin was able to elicit from them in his prints. This was not through chance. By showing many multiples of the same image, in startlingly different styles, we learn that he was somewhat obsessive in his printing, inking and printing the same piece over and over again until he finally achieved the effect he was looking for. Gauguin preferred a haziness that sometimes verges on abstraction. In his “Noa Noa” series, including the work “Maruru (Offerings of Gratitude), his experimental multiples are shown alongside those of profession printer Louis Roy, which while more technically “correct,” lack the dreamlike quality of Gauguin’s prints. Gauguin is said to have been unhappy with them for this reason.

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit, recto. c. 1900, Oil transfer drawing, Private collection

Also included in the exhibition are a number of oil transfer drawings, a technique Gauguin is said to have invented. The process involved rolling out printer’s ink on a sheet of paper, laying down a second sheet of paper, and then drawing on top of them both. The ink from the bottom sheet would adhere to the underside of the top sheet wherever the pencil had been drawn, resulting in a double sided piece, with the transferred image on the underside being the final work of art. These hybrid works further make the case that Gauguin’s works in print form a crucial part of his oeuvre. While not as lushly beautiful as his paintings, stripped bare, or nearly bare of color, his prints offer a more crystalline vision of Gauguin’s appreciation for the mystery of our origins and existence.

“Gauguin: Metamorphoses” is on view through June 8, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.