Spiritual Gauguin

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday November 27, 2018
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Paul Gauguin, "Reclining Tahitian Women" (1894), oil on canvas. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo: Ole Haupt, courtesy FAMSF
Paul Gauguin, "Reclining Tahitian Women" (1894), oil on canvas. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo: Ole Haupt, courtesy FAMSF

When French painter Paul Gauguin, beautifully played by actor Oscar Isaac, strides onto the screen in the new film "At Eternity's Gate," Julian Schnabel's hypnotic meditation on Van Gogh and the tortures and exhilaration of art, he cuts a swaggering figure: a brash, iconoclastic follower of no one, sure of himself and his own instincts, self-centered to a fault and just passing through. He bears a striking resemblance to the man who inhabits "Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey," an exhibition that opened recently at the de Young Museum.

The show of 60 paintings from the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen also features revelatory examples of the artist's expressive printmaking, painted wood bas reliefs, and over a dozen, lesser-known primitive experiments with ceramics only a Gauguin enthusiast could love. Beginning its narrative arc in 1870, the exhibition lays out its two main themes: how this original artist's pivotal relationships with fellow artists and his wife shaped his work; and his quest for spirituality, not only his own but that of other cultures he believed could unlock the secrets of nature. The curators also include artifacts from FAMSF's Oceanic Art collection, the rationale being they connect with Gauguin's sojourns to the Pacific Islands. But what might have been a good idea in theory doesn't work in the context of the show.

Like so many male artists then and now, Gauguin had the advantage of love and support of a strong, independent and devoted woman. (A book about all of the women who've sacrificed their own talents and ambitions on the altar of their male partners' careers is waiting to be written.) In Paris he met Mette Gad, the resourceful Danish woman he would marry. Sympathetic to his passion for art, she agreed to stay behind to raise their five children in Copenhagen — though one wonders if she had a choice — while he traveled to the South of France, New Zealand, the Marquesas Islands, and Tahiti, seeking unspoiled regions where he could nourish his soul, feel closer to the earth and embolden his artistic imagination.

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with a Flower (1891), oil on canvas. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo: Ole Haupt, courtesy FAMSF  

She promoted and sold his paintings for him in his absence. Meanwhile he was off in the South Seas, surrounded by teenage native girls, and accumulating young mistresses from Paris to the tropics. A chart mapping his extra-curricular relationships reveals he fathered children with several women and painted others in works one wishes were here. Though Mette appears in a sensitive, pencil-drawn portrait he did in 1873, the year they wed, and the couple is seen in photographs together, they were estranged for most of their marriage, from 1885 until his death in 1903; they never divorced. Gauguin compiled his thoughts, ruminations on his paintings and the writings of Poe and Rimbaud in a notebook for his daughter — sample pages are on view — but she succumbed to pneumonia before she received it.

As the exhibition trips through the decades, Gauguin is revealed as a scavenger who sampled and adopted styles that he made his own. His early paintings hew close to the Impressionists with whom he exhibited his work between 1880 and 1882. The gentle composition and muted colors of "The Family of the Painter in a Garden" (1881), which depicts his young children in the Vanguard district of Paris, reflects the influence of Renoir, Degas and his teacher and mentor, Camille Pissarro. (Gauguin, an avid collector, owned the two Pissarro paintings displayed in the show.) "Garden in Snow" (1879), a rural landscape with a frozen lake and a filigree of bare tree branches etching the icy air, could be mistaken for one of the famous winter paintings by Monet, who was a certifiable rock star at the time. And the frankness of Gauguin's assured charcoal-and-chalk-pastel "The Woman from Arles, Madame Ginoux" (1888), with its take-no-prisoners subject, is reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec's denizens of the demi-monde. (In Schnabel's film, Gauguin sketches her while visiting Van Gogh.)

Many will bemoan the shortage of the Tahitian paintings for which Gauguin is best known. "Tahitian Woman with a Flower" (1891), a portrait of a handsome, almost masculine woman, remote in affect and dressed in stiff colonial clothing, her black hair contrasting with a maize background, was painted shortly after his arrival on the island. What an odd impression he must have made with his trademark cowboy hat (he was a fan of Buffalo Bill) and long, unruly hair. "Reclining Tahitian Women," or "The Amusement of the Evil Spirit" (1894), a primal scene of bathers washing their hair in a stream limned in bold colors and a mix of figurative and abstract forms, was actually painted in France and bartered to pay his hotel bill in Brittany. (Both works are discussed in the exhibit's "First Impressions," a video by Samoa-based artist Yuki Kihara that explores Gauguin's imagery of indigenous Mahu, or Tahitian third-gender individuals.) "Landscape from Tahiti" (ca. 1893) is a pure distillation of paradise, an idealized exotic dream of the Pacific where inviting pools of water beckon beyond a grove of lush green palms whose upper canopy has been scorched by the sun.

Gauguin's stunning, earth-toned prints offer another means of escape. He seized upon the medium at a moment in the 19th century when the ancient art-form was experiencing a revival, and adapted it for his own purposes. Printed with dark sepia ink, Gauguin's superb aquatint etching of fellow Symbolist and mutual admirer Stephane Mallarme (1891) conveys the writer's character and gravitas, and the merging of two poetic spirits. In "Eternal Night" (1893-94), an emotionally forceful, technically brilliant black-and-orange woodcut on pink paper, the dimming light of an oil lamp casts a faint glow on an inert figure attended by a shadowy gathering keeping vigil as he transitions from day to night, literally and metaphorically.

A similarly unusual clay-and-ochre palette, more in tune with pantheism than the heaven-sent blues and pinks of the Impressionists, permeates his wood carvings and "Flowers and Cats," a still life painted in 1899, a few years before he died at the age of 55. The autumnal hues seeping like blood through a floral bouquet suggest the inevitable return to the soil and oneness with the earth Gauguin had been seeking in life.

Through April 7. www.famsf.org. "At Eternity's Gate" is currently playing in theaters.