Myths of Eden and Gauguin’s Metamorphoses

The Museum of Modern Art | March 8 – June 8, 2014

For those hoping to wander through galleries laden with the Tahitian reveries and thinly veiled Gallic indiscretions formed by the jewel-conjuring palette of Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), the Museum of Modern Art’s Gauguin: Metamorphoses might prove a tremendous disappointment. Of the exhibition’s 160 pieces, only 11 are oil paintings. Metamorphoses focuses instead on the works on paper that Gauguin executed during the last 14 years of his life—from woodblock prints to monographs and oil-transfers. Approached as an exhibition of paintings surrounded by perfunctory works on paper that doggedly repeat nearly identical figures, motifs, and compositions with the necessary drudgery of glamourless abbozzi, Metamorphoses rapidly withers into a tedious, underwhelming exercise. And yet, to conceptualize Metamorphoses in such terms is to mistakenly equate works on paper with inchoacy or insignificance. Instead, these pieces sound the central chord of the exhibition. Moreover, they create a visual echo chamber where viewers can stand in the midst of a gallery and hearken as images and their phantom-doubles resound, throbbing across the space in prints, paintings, carvings, and ceramics.

Paul Gauguin, “Maruru” (“Offerings of Gratitude”) from the suite Noa Noa (“Fragrant Scent”). 1893 – 94. Woodcut, comp. 8 1/16 × 14 ̋. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. Photo by Michael Agee © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Metamorphoses is not about grand paintings and grand narratives, though it strives to capture their essence better than the pieces themselves. To focus on the late prints is more than a steering towards a less noted medium, and although many of them have seldom (if ever) been exhibited publicly, it is neither understatement nor obscurity that makes Metamorphoses a potentially delightful, discomfiting experience.

These overlooked works on paper were not preparations for paintings; they were revisions of them. Here, the themes that have made Gauguin’s oil paintings so compelling are distilled into even more powerful formulations in the journey from canvas to page. Exhibition curator Starr Figura traded spectacle for substance. The choice, however, is likely to disappoint some viewers—repetition, it seems, is the unavoidable remainder that transformation can leave behind.

Gauguin’s oil paintings are legendary as veritable orgies of hue where unlikely pairings revel in unforeseen possibilities of chromaticity, both sensuous and technical. Those vibrant, impetuous colors are often cited as indispensible to Gauguin’s work as a Symbolist. Though the later monotypes and oil-transfers are a necessary part of an exhibition devoted to Gauguin’s works on paper and reveal a use of color that can only be described as unfathomably tender, it is the prints, first on zinc then woodblocks, that crystallize why Metamorphoses manages to matter. The limits of woodblocks compel the artist to abjure reliance on form-making color and to instead find expressive potential within the discipline of line, in the exchange between deep furrows and finely engraved details, in the variations of print states and of the paper itself. The resulting works express the most exquisite complexities implicit to Gauguin’s fantasies.

Triptych-like, three separate print suites span and structure the exhibition. Their relationship is nothing less than a distillation in parvum of the ambivalences and doubts enchorial to the fantasy of a prelapsarian paradise the artist documented so often and so well. That Gauguin often represented French Polynesia as a lost Eden is widely known. But the artist did not simply embrace Tahiti as his own Bali Ha’i. He chased paradise from the unrefined peasantry of the Breton countryside to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. He searched for it across seas and without luck, and then created fantasies of its attainment. The resulting prints expose the contours of the artist’s crises of faith about his Edens more eloquently—the pathos of their unattainability—and with greater complexity than his bejeweled canvases.

But Gauguin was not naïve; his Polynesian Eden was a construct, more a figure for the primitive than a reality. He vacillated between regretful awareness that his Eden was a myth and a stubborn insistence on its existence. The dialogue between disillusionment and idealism is captured in two entries in the artist’s Intimate Journals. In the first,Gauguin mourns the state of the colonized Martinique where he remarks: “This art has disappeared […] and the unhappy people have yielded […] the new generation sings the canticles in incomprehensible French […] and after that […] Nothing.”  Elsewhere, the artist deifies his Tahitian muses by exoticizing the opening lines of Mallarmé’s noted eclogue, “L’après-midi d’un faune.” Gauguin declares, “These nymphs, I want to perpetuate them with their golden skins, their searching animal odour, their tropical savours. They are here what they are everywhere, have always been will always be.”

The suites testify to Gauguin’s struggle with the artificiality of his own Edenic mythologies with particular eloquence. The earliest, the “Volpini Suite” (1889), focuses on “pastoral” scenes in 11 zincographs. Most prints linger on the Breton countryside—a bather, Breton women in conversation regarding a cow, girls pretending to lead a reel from a country-dance. Several scenes from Martinique are included too: maidens waft across the page balancing fruit on their heads or exchanging secrets while a goat suckles its kid. The quotidian is not without its sorrows, however. In “Old Maids of Arles” four women, arranged in pairs—plain and shrouded in black with joyless faces—confront the viewer. Even the columns of hay seem emaciated, a proximal victim of their sterility. Tellingly, the “Volpini’s” cover illustration makes reference to a myth of innocence lost—of erotic desire and a rape that would cause a seemingly unending war, that of Leda and the swan.

The 10 woodcuts in the Noa Noa Suite (1893 – 94) might seem simply a parade of exoticized representations of Tahiti, but they repeatedly insist upon existential isolation, whether in the obliquity of human relationships or the ineluctable incomprehensibility of deity. In many cases, the woodcuts return to oil paintings and revise the compositions, as in the eponymous print “Noa Noa,” which resurrects the subjects of the painting “Under the Pandanus” (1891), in which two Tahitian girls are depicted arrested from their daily labors by an intimate exchange. Though the landscape and positions of the figures are consistent, the woodcut places a seemingly unbreachable distance between them. They turn mutely toward each other across the landscape, the face of one figure partially obscured by a cloud, the other impassive, unresponsive. Elsewhere, in the Noa Noa Suite, girls supplicate at the foot of a seated idol. With the Spartan quality of simple lines, the seated god looks ahead, unmoved, perhaps not even present. Elsewhere, phantoms peer out of the darkness, partially enveloped by the atrous background.

With the 14 woodcuts of the Vollard Suite  (1898 – 99), Gauguin brought syncretic mysticism and idealized tropical scenes into dialogue with rustic Breton vignettes, shifting between the two poles without transition. Significantly, the series ends with an allusion to Greek mythology, The Rape of Europa. In that woodcut, a girl is seen picking flowers, another weeping, astride a bull. The scene takes place on a perpetual foreground. In this final woodcut, time has collapsed; mortals and immortals are in commerce, but innocence, once again, is lost.

A “work of art.” The phrase has been absorbed into convention so completely that its unsuitability goes undetected. It is deceptive, this universally accepted metonymy that substitutes process for conclusion and indeterminacy for what accident or determinism has deemed an end. Metamorphoses unsettles that metonymic complacency by revealing, in a torrent of sketches, prints, and woodcarvings, how an imagined “work of art”—even the work of a canonical artist like Gauguin—invites us to inhabit the fantasy of a totality. The works on paper are not preparations for larger projects, and they are not simply revisions of them. Though their colors are muted (if present at all), these images give visual form to the hidden poignancies that inform his painting. Gauguin’s works on paper are what nostalgia looks like when it is orphaned from experience; they are the vision memory sees—so vague and so lovely.

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