From the surreal landscapes of Brittany in Northern France, where mysticism and religiosity were present in almost all daily activities, to the sun-drenched tropical landscapes of Martinique, where the artist spent five months, Gauguin searched for the primitive and magical to express his desire for a more meaningful life than he found among the elite artists of the Impressionist and Fauve movements in Europe. His quest would lead him to abandon Europe, his wife and children for the tropics for the remainder of his life.
Guest curator for the exhibition, Belinda Thomas who previously curated “Gauguin’s Vision” at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, commented “This exhibition is a fresh approach to Gauguin’s work. It is not a straight chronological survey, nor does it focus on a place or period. It shows how he was drawn to the mythic; suggesting, complicating and withholding meaning. It dispels the myth that Tahiti made Gauguin”
The exhibit includes some of the artist’s more compelling works, such as “Vision of the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (1888) where several Breton women in their traditional dress of white caps and severe black dresses, pray as they watch this Biblical scene play out in a field of vivid red, underscoring the surrealism of the vision. His “Yellow Christ” (1889) depicting Jesus on the cross surrounded by Breton women also reveals the surrealism of the crucifixion scene, as the women gather beneath the cross in a yellow landscape dotted with red trees.
Not to disappoint those who love Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings, this exhibit is chock full of the lush, vividly-colored tropical scenes where the artist had hoped to find his own paradise. “Two Tahitian Women” (1899) is a perfect example of the serenely proud Tahitian women, whose sensuality and bare-breasted beauty is juxtaposed against a tray of ripe red mangos or flowers in full bloom. On a darker side, “Manao tupapao: The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch” (1892) depicts a nude Tahitian woman in the last hours of her life, staring off into space while a tiki-like figure overlooks her in a death watch. But despite the subject of the painting, the appeal of rich hues of purple and the blue-and-yellow patterned bed spread transport the viewer into the cool depths of a Polynesian home in a quietly sinister setting.
Gauguin’s lesser-known, but not inferior sculptures are also gathered in this show, exhibiting the artist’s talents as a wood carver who captured Polynesian mythology in three-dimensional pieces. “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” also deftly intertwines the artist’s woodcut prints, pastels and preliminary sketches of his major canvases into the themed exhibit.
“We are ready for Gauguin now in a way we have never been before,” said Mary Morton, Curator and Head of French Paintings for the National Gallery of Art. “He is most engaging when he is least empirical.”
Those who know little of the works of Paul Gauguin, who died in the Marquesas Islands on May 8, 1903 and is buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Hiva-Oa, will leave “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” knowing more about this artist whose influence on modern art is undeniable. And those who love the works of Gauguin will leave this exhibit feeling fully satisfied.
“Gauguin: Maker of Myth” is on view through June 5 at the National Gallery of Art. Visit www.nga.gov for more information. A full line of Gauguin-inspired gifts are available in the East Building gift shop. WI
“Gauguin: Maker of Myth” is on view through June 5 at the National Gallery of Art. Visit www.nga.gov for more information. A full line of Gauguin inspired gifts are available in the East Building gift shop. / Courtesy photos