Sunday, 17 December 2017

Gauguin L' Alchimiste

 Paul Gauguin - Self-Portrait With Hat, (1893)

I managed to catch another great exhibition whilst in Paris - Gauguin L' Alchimiste, is a huge exhibition, and is perhaps the most comprehensive retrospective of his work ever staged. It is much more extensive than that seen at Tate Modern seven years ago. It covers 3 floors of the historic Grand Palais complex, (there is also a huge Irving Penn retrospective on show in another part of the Grand Palais), displaying early, mid-career and mature works, as well as other lesser known aspects of his oeuvre, such as sculpture, furniture design, ceramics, printmaking and of course his colour-saturated paintings. I was blown away by the Gauguin's seen at the Fondation Louis Vuitton last year (here), as part of the Shchukin collection based in Russia, but this show (which includes some of those paintings), eclipses that show in terms of sheer number and quality of works by Gauguin. Sadly we did not get to see The Metropolitan Museum of Art's - We Greet Thee, Mary (Ia Orana Maria), 1891, regarded by critics as arguably the jewel in the crown of Gauguin's South Seas paintings, but there are more than enough gems in this exhibition to make up for this omission.

The wonderfully imposing Grand Palais facade.

Edgar Degas - Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, (1874)

The show starts chronologically, with early paintings by Gauguin himself, and some by his Impressionist contemporaries whom he admired, such as this grisaille beauty (above), by Edgar Degas. Initially a stockbroker who painted in his free time, Gauguin was great friends with Camille Pissarro, who was instrumental in introducing Gauguin to avant-garde Impressionists painters and their circles in turn of the century Paris. The early paintings of Gauguin display his love for, and skillful of use of colour, as well as the influence of the work of contemporaries Cézanne and Degas in the use of brushwork, and the daring compositional cropping of images. Degas was very supportive of Gauguin's work and organised a solo exhibition for him, as well as purchasing works.

 Enfant Endormie, (1884)
Still Life With Portrait of Laval, (1886)

Still-Life With Mandolin, (1885)

 Still-Life, Fete Gloanec, (1888)

In 1886 Gauguin visited the artists colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany, and was influenced by the Breton lanscape and culture. He seemed particularly enamoured of the folk dress and rituals of the local ladies, and these images formed the basis of many of his paintings of this period. These observations were also instrumental in Gauguin developing both confidence in his work, and his own visual language as an artist.

La Bergère Bretonne, (1886)

Breton Girls Dancing, (1888)

Paysannes Bretonnes, (1894)
Breton Woman At The Gate - Suite Volpini
The graphic images of English artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott, which were very influentual at the time, and had become very popular through their use in a guide book on Brittany, influenced Gauguin's printmaking and graphic work (above).

These period wooden Breton clogs, were part of the Breton vernacular of the time, and are obviously beautifully carved. They are folk artworks in their own right, but do look quite uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time to modern eyes. 

La Belle Angèle, (1889)

Self-Portrait With Yellow Christ, (1889-90)

Nature Mort à L'éventail, (1889)

A real revelation to me in this exhibition, apart from the scale and breadth of Gauguin's  paintings were his sculptures, carvings, and ceramics. He was a very physical artist, known to put his pugilistic and sword-fighting skills to use when needed, and expressed this physicality through the sculptural output of his artistic oeuvre. The exhibition features some great examples captured in the pictures below which, despite his masculine physicality, also display a sensitivity to both the medium, and subject matter.

Valérie Roumi, (1880, carved and painted mahogany)

Washerwomen in Arles, (1888)

La Famille Schuffenecker, (1889)

This painting (above), was one of my favourites in the show. I loved the divisions of cool blue and purple colours in the background, and warmer red and orange tones in the foreground, as well as the exaggerated sulphuric yellows and greens in the faces of female figures. Once he had found his own visual style Gauguin really was a superb colourist.

Human Misery, (1888)

Human Misery, (1889)

Nature Morte Aux Fruits, (1888)

The series of works above examine the human condition, and the emotion of misery portrayed through the repeated use of the alienated figure of an unhappy young woman, deep in reflection, head in hands, oblivious to other life, and the beauty of nature that surrounds her. Gauguin at this time was very interested in symbolism, and thought that it was the painters role to suggest themes and ideas through their work, rather than to explain.  

Portrait of Woman With Cézanne Still Life, (1890)

As seen above in his Misery series, Gauguin was not afraid to repeatedly use an idea or figure if it suited a particular painting or project. Motifs used in Gauguin's paintings could also be transferred to and found in his ceramics, and the carved facades of his furniture panels. The female figure below, being a prime example. Dans Les Vagues, (In The Waves), below, is a large painting which was much admired (and photographed), by visitors to the exhibition. The off-centre composition and seductive contrast of the powerful green sea against the pale, vulnerable flesh and vibrant red hair was perhaps too much for them to resist.

Dans Les Vagues, (In The Waves), (1889)

Gauguin made his first foray to tropical climes in 1887 having visited Panama and then the island of Martinique in succession. He made a number of paintings here, and in surviving letters expresses his love for the island life and the islanders he depicted. Gauguin made his first visit to Tahiti in 1891, vowing to escape European civilisation and "everything that is artificial and conventional". Initially disappointed by life in Papeete the capital of the colony, which didn't seem to fit his vision of a primitive pastoral idyll, he moved to Mataiea, Papeari some 24 miles away. Here living in a "primitive" wooden hut he made some of the finest paintings of his career. He returned to France in 1893 and continued to make paintings with Tahitian themes which recieved a mixed reception. With a difficult complex personal life, and a frustrating relationship with the Parisian art scene, Gauguin set out once again for Tahiti in 1895. His life here suffered mixed fortunes financially, but a deal with art dealer Ambroise Vollard enabled Gauguin to live out his last years in relative comfort in the Marquesas islands. 

Femme Caraibe, (1889)

Bé Bé, (Baby, Nativity of Tahitian Christ), (1896)

Nature Morte aux Fleurs et à L'idole, (1892)

Tête de Tahitienne, (1891)

Parahi Te Marae, (The Sacred Mountain), (1892)

The curators have really embraced current technology, and there are three darkened, sections in the exhibition with large screens (above), where visitors have virtual access to the artist's sketchbooks, can learn about the development of his ceramics, and view pictures of his residence in Tahiti. These areas are very informative and really do enhance the knowledge and viewing experience on Gauguin's methodology for visitors.

I Raro te Oviri, (Under The Pandanus), (1891)

Merahi Metua No Tehamana, (The Ancestors of Tehamana), (1893)

Arearea, (1892)
Et Lors de Leurs Corps, (1901)

Some of Gauguin's nudes do seem gratuitous and exploitative. They are controversial and problematic, given Gauguin's distasteful penchant for taking a number of teenage girls as his vahine, (native wife). I do not know whether this practice was usual in that community at that time, and why Gauguin wasn't challenged there and then about his life-partner choices. The tolerance afforded him and his choices made me wonder whether this was a practice that was well established and customary among the indigenous population. Perhaps the only saving grace for Gauguin in this situation is that none of these relationships lasted for very long. The girls chose to leave him. Maybe it was that he wasn't able to provide for them materially. Or maybe his reputed difficult temperament was too much for them to deal with. Like many European artists who venture abroad for inspiration, the tropical climate seems to have brought out the best in Gauguin's abilities as a colourist though, and he used colour with a surreal, and symbolic abandon to create seductive imagery especially in the landscapes and backdrops for the figures and animals which inhabit the paintings.

Vairumati, (1892)

Baigneuses à Tahiti, (1897)

Le Cheval Blanc, (1898)

Nave Nave Moe, Sacred Spring: Sweet Dreams, (1894)

Pastorales Tahitiennes, (1892)

Manau Tupapau, The Spirit of The Dead Watching, (1892)

Arii Matamoe, The Royal End, (1892)

Te Nave Nave Fenua, (Delightful Land), (1892)

Faa Iheihe, (1898)

Le Repas Dit Aussi Les Bananes, (1891)

Aha Oe Feii? (Are You Jealous?, (1892)

 Tahitian Women On The Beach (1891)

It was great to be able to familiarise and reacquaint myself with new friends, (two pictures above, seen at this amazing show), which I was able to witness last year in Paris, and also an old familiar friend, visited frequently in London at the Courtauld, below.

Te Rerioa, (The Dream), (1897)

This decoratively carved wooden entrance to Gauguin's house was particularly impressive.

Rupe Rupe Luxuriant, (1899)

The exhibition ends on a great high with this large, vibrant, colourful beauty of a canvas (above), which is one of my favourites of his images. This is a really exhaustive, but ultimately rewarding retrospective of Gauguin's work. The curators have done a fantastic job of further enlightening us about aspects of his life and oeuvre (especially ceramics and wood-carving), through the sheer number of works on show, which are representative of all periods and mediums of his artistic career. Ultimately I don't think it matters what you think of the reputation and behaviour of Gauguin the man, repugnant, and unsavoury as aspects of some of his actions and deeds may have been. I choose to believe that he was an individual with specific character flaws, as we all are, who chose to express his own shortcomings in ways that were appropriate for him, which were tolerated at that time. He left us with some very personal, iconic, images of a highly idealised pastoral vision, tied to a certain period in art history. Personal reputation notwithstanding, this is the definitive show of Gauguin's life and artistic career. Do catch this exhibition if you can in the short time left. You will not be disappointed. 

Gauguin L'Alchimiste
(Gauguin The Alchemist)
until 22nd January 2018
The Grand Palais
3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 
75008 Paris,