Paul Gauguin, Polynesia, Maruru
Urban Art Visual Art

Paul Gauguin: Nature and Primitivism as Mythical Notions


Paul Gauguin, the bourgeois-turned-bohemian artist who left France for Tahiti, reveals a darker, almost menacing mythological vision, in contrast to his exploitative picture-postcard fantasy-native Polynesian paintings for which he is known. His New York MoMA show was in 2014.

Paul Gauguin, Polynesia, Maruru
Combining native, Eastern and Western scenes and mythology, Gauguin’s rough-hewn woodcuts and woodcarvings establish “Primitivism” as a more “authentic” form of artistic investigation. Maruru (Offerings of Gratitude) from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent). 1893-94. Photograph: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

A Different Angle on Gauguin

By Lance Esplund in the Wall Street Journal

The progressive, primitivistic French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was the original hippie. As the Industrial Revolution rapidly advanced, Gauguin dropped out, slowed down. For the majority of his contemporaries, mythological, symbolic and religious subjects were out of vogue. Gauguin was an innovator, but he didn’t side with the Impressionists, who wanted to ensnare light on the canvas; or with the Realist Gustave Courbet, who challenged “Show me an angel and I’ll paint it!” A self-proclaimed “savage” and “seeker” in search of a deeper reality, Gauguin believed that art shouldn’t sever its age-old kinship with religion and myth. He saw art and spirit as symbiotic—artistic feeling was religious feeling.

When Gauguin embarked on two extended trips to Tahiti, first in 1891 and then in 1895 (he died in the Marquesas Islands), he said that he was on an “artistic mission”; that he needed to shake off the artificiality, absurdities and evil of “filthy Europe”—a “morally and physically corrupt society.” It’s difficult to know just what exactly—besides “primitive beauty”—he was searching for in French Polynesia. Yet evidence of what he found there is in beautiful abundance in “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” a diverse, dreamlike exhibition of about 130 works on paper and 30 related paintings, vessels and sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Was this thy secret, thou mysterious world? Oh mysterious world of all light, thou hast made a light shine within me, and I have grown in admiration of thy antique beauty, which is the immemorial youth of nature. I have become better for having understood and having loved thy human soul–a flower which has ceased to bloom and whose fragrance no one henceforth will breathe.”  — Paul Gauguin, “Noa Noa

Gauguin believed that “in order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.” He had been dipping into that exotic well all his life—long before he lost his job as a stockbroker, in 1882, and became a full-time artist. Gauguin spent his early youth with relatives in Lima, Peru. He had traveled around the world as a merchant marine and, after he abandoned his wife and children in Denmark in 1885, Gauguin had visited Australia, Panama, Martinique and Vincent van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles, France. Alongside Van Gogh, Gauguin created paintings comprising shallow depth, symbolic richness, bold lines and emotionally charged, heightened, flat-color shapes. These pictures would inspire “the wild beasts” of Fauvism and lead to abstraction.

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Te Atua, Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa
With the colourful paintings, it’s easy to say that Gauguin was just an exoticist, an outsider looking in. The hazy, abstracted prints bring a more mythological aesthetic. Te Atua (The Gods) , c. 1895, Rosenwald Collection.

Gauguin’s Imagined Tahiti in Noa Noa

Gauguin titled his Tahitian travel journal “Noa Noa,” or fragrant scent, and this dense, variegated show—with its shimmering hues; smoky, earthy and plangent darks; primeval mark-making and vertiginous eroticism—overwhelms like a hothouse.

Gauguin’s primitivism was never just an orientalism of the South Pacific. Tahiti and the Marquesas were not places to be redeemed by white folks, but places where he wanted to lose himself, to be reborn a truer artist. The ghostly prints have a different charge: suddenly Polynesia is no longer an Arcadian paradise untainted by Europe, but a site of more universal, unavoidable conflict and terror.  — Jason Farago, The Guardian UK

Te Nave Nave Fenua, Paul Gauguin, Tahiti
Here the imaginary Tahitian Eve blends into abstraction with the wilds beyond. Woodcut of Te Nave Nave Fenua, The Delightful Land, circa 1894. Photograph: National Gallery of Art

MoMA’s exhibition builds on three complete groundbreaking sets of narrative prints: the “Volpini Suite” (1889), 11 zincographs printed on unconventional, fiery-yellow paper; the 10 woodcuts in the “Noa Noa” suite (1893-94); and the 14 woodcuts in the “Vollard Suite” (1898-99). These woodcuts are primordial, sensual and mysterious—as if spirits were being beckoned from darkness. Combining native, Eastern and Western scenes and mythology, Gauguin’s rough-hewn woodcuts and woodcarvings would establish “Primitivism” as a truer, more “authentic” form of artistic investigation. Moreover, acknowledging the aesthetic value of the art of tribal cultures, Gauguin’s art—inspiring Cubism and Expressionism—transformed European collections of ethnographic objects and artifacts into works of art with a capital A.

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Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, Oviri
Oviri (Savage): A figure borrowed from an earlier pastoral painting turns into a lurid totem, expressed in a [J.M.W.]Turneresque cloud of blue and brown or a black-saturated mess.

According to Maori cosmogony the greatest god Taaroa slept with Hina, and of them was born Tii.

Tii slept with the woman Ani (Desire), and of them were born: Desire-of-the-night, the messenger of shadows and of death; Desire-of-the-day, the messenger of light and of life; Desire-of-the-gods, the messenger of the things of heaven; Desire-of-men, the messenger of the things of the earth.

Of them in turn were born: Tii of the within who watches over animals and plants; Tii of the without who guards the beings and things of the sea; Tii of the sands, and Tii of the sea-shores, and Tii of the loose earth; Tii of the rocks and Tii of the solid earth.

Still later were born: the happenings of the night, the happenings of the day, going and coming, flux and reflux, the giving and receiving of pleasure.

The images of the Tiis were placed at the farthest ends of the maraës (temples), and formed the limit which circumscribed the sacred places. They are seen on the rocks and on the sea-shores. These idols have the mission of marking the boundaries between the earth and the sea, of maintaining the balance between the two elements, and of restraining their reciprocal encroachments. — Paul Gauguin, “Noa Noa”

When Gauguin arrived in Tahiti—a French colony—he found that his imagined tropical Eden had been diluted by Christianity. But he painted his lost Tahitian fantasy in “Matta Mua” (“In Olden Times,” 1892), an idyllic pagan world with native women playing music and dancing around a monumental stone statue of Hina, the Polynesian goddess of the moon.

The curators suggest that Gauguin’s search for a culture unspoiled by European mores and constraints paralleled his eagerness to create entirely new types of art. And you can feel the presence and influence of Gauguin’s evolving printmaking process in nearly everything in the show. In the graphic and serene “I raro te oviri” (“Under the Pandanus,” 1891), which depicts two women and a dog, it’s as if Gauguin—treating the canvas as woodcut or scratchboard—is carving into the violet earth to unleash a world of fire beneath. As in many of Gauguin’s artworks, there’s a thin veil between eroticism and evil; everyday life and myth; paradise and hell.

“The woodcut offered Gauguin the ideal medium to depict a paradise whose real attraction lay in its remaining always unattainable.”  — Alastair Wright, “Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered”

Before he set sail for the South Seas, Gauguin had painted biblical scenes such as “The Yellow Christ” and “The Vision After the Sermon.” In Tahiti, he appears to have started fresh as an artist—as if he felt he must unearth and rediscover his subjects and even his way of mark-making. In the Tahitians, Gauguin recognized “something superhuman . . . something divinely animal.” And we can sense his reverence and discretion before his newfound subjects. In the sexually suggestive oil painting “Upa upa” (“The Fire Dance,” 1894), the artist is outsider looking in: Gauguin portrays Tahitian dancers and lovers from a voyeuristic distance.

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Tahiti, Paul Gauguin, primitivism
She reclines as a horned evil spirit menaces from behind. Paul Gauguin. Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit. c. 1900.

Summoning Erotic and Violent Forces from the Land

Gauguin’s glowing, golden Tahitian women suggest noble gods, angels, Eves, idols and archetypes. The women can also be dark and gestating—erotic and violent forces curled up in the fetal position. His nudes, redolent and sensual, are as regal and solid as temples. They flit among myriad sources—Western, Eastern, Primitive, Polynesian, Hindu, Christian. In a series of prone nudes, “Manao tupapau” (“Watched by the Spirit of the Dead,” from 1892-94), Gauguin merges Edouard Manet‘s “Olympia” with a Tahitian legend involving demons and specters. And in the heated, lush and magical painting “Faa iheihe” (“Tahitian Pastoral,” 1898), he fuses a Buddhist temple with the Parthenon frieze; exotic jungle with a melancholic longing for the West’s classical and primitive pasts.

“He portrayed the natives as living only to sing and to make love,” said Nancy Mowll Mathews, author of “Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life.” “That’s how he got the money from his friends and raised the public’s interest in his adventure. But, of course, he knew the truth, which was that Tahiti was an unremarkable island with an international, Westernized community.”

In Gauguin’s smudged oil transfer drawings, “Studies of Cows” and “Animal Studies” (both 1901-02), which resemble sketchbook drawings made from mud and ash, it’s as if their forms had been burned—summoned—into being, as if he had rubbed these pictographs directly from Paleolithic cave walls. And in carved-wood reliefs such as “Eve With the Serpent and Other Animals” (c.1889)—gouged, chiseled and clawed—Gauguin appears to have resurrected Neolithic Venuses and fertility goddesses.

Likewise, Gauguin’s freestanding figures take on totemic weight. In “Noa Noa,” he said that he saw in the Tahitians “the Forest itself, the living Forest.” The artwork bears this out. In the enameled stoneware “Oviri” (“Savage,” 1894), portraying a standing nude woman with a fresh-killed wolf, the goddess’s long, parted hair suggests waterfall, fish, vulva and fissure. In a related series of prints, Oviri, with a grotesque head, hovers like a threatening mirage. Gauguin identified so strongly with this “savage” that he requested that the sculpture mark his tomb.

In the final gallery we encounter the woodcarvings “Head With Horns” (1895-97), a fantastical evil spirit or “savage”—Gauguin’s nearly life-size bestial self-portrait—and “Tahitian Girl” (c.1896), a large, leaning, freestanding nude. “Tahitian Girl” is vulnerable, supple, rooted to the earth. Her enormous head—swaying like plump fruit on her timid torso—swells like a premonition. At this point, submerged with Gauguin on his Polynesian journey, his various sources become immaterial and easily fall away. Gauguin—neither French nor “savage” artist—is delving into the mysteries of creation.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Wall Street Journal.

“Gauguin: Metamorphosis” was on view in 2014, at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019. 212-708-9400,

Updated 16 April 2018

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