Art News

The Seattle Art Museum showcases "Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise"

artwork: Paul Gauguin - "The Bathers", 1897 - Oil on canvas - 23 3/4" x 36 3/4" - Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC On view at the Seattle Art Museum in "Gauguinand Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise" until April 29th.

Seattle, Washington.- The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is proud to present the only United States stop for “Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise”, a landmark show highlighting the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin’s work and the art and culture of Polynesia. The exhibition, on view through April 29th, includes about 50 of Gauguin’s brilliantly hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of forceful Polynesian sculpture. Organized by the Art Centre Basel the show is comprised of works on loan from some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Recognized for his distinctive palette and the evocative symbolism of his subject matter, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) is one of the most influential and celebrated artists of the late nineteenth century and was a leader in the Post-Impressionist movement that rejected Impressionism’s emphasis on visual observation. Along with Vincent van Gogh, Emile Bernard and others, Gauguin sought to bring timelessness and poetry into painting. From very early in his career, Gauguin yearned for the exotic in both his life and his work, leading to two significant sojourns in French Polynesia – a two-year stay in Tahiti beginning in 1891 and a second trip to Tahiti, and later, to the even more remote Marquesas Islands. Gauguin and Polynesia aims to contribute not only to a deeper understanding of Gauguin’s work, but also to further an understanding of Polynesian culture. Gauguin and Polynesia traces Gauguin’s journey from bourgeois stockbroker to full-time artist, while at the same time tracing Polynesia’s artistic evolution during the 18th and 19th centuries.

artwork: Paul Gauguin - "Three Tahitians", 1898 or 1899 - Oil on canvas - 73 x 94 cm. - Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland  -  At the Seattle Art Museum until April 29th 2012.

Paul Gauguin’s biography reveals a complicated personal journey. Born June 7, 1848, to Clovis and Aline Gauguin, the yearning for adventure was likely fueled by an early experience in Peru. In 1849, the Gauguin family left Napoleonic France due to a political climate hostile to the liberal leanings of Gauguin’s journalist-father. En route to Peru, Clovis died of a heart attack, leaving Aline and their two children to complete the journey alone. Returning to France in 1857, Aline Gauguin struggled to support her children, and Paul was eventually enrolled in a prestigious boarding school in Orléans. At the age of 17, the young man joined the merchant marines and, later, the French Navy, in positions that would take him around the world. He eventually settled into a position as a stockbroker in Paris, where he met and married a young Danish woman named Mette Sophie Gad and had five children in quick succession. Gauguin showed an interest in painting, and collected art in the 1870s, but it was with the collapse of the stock market in 1882 that he decided to pursue his own career as an artist. Gauguin and Polynesia opens with a look at early paintings and sculptures Gauguin created in the late 1880s when he lived in Brittany. Through his life in Brittany and a five-month trip to the Caribbean island of Martinique, Gauguin sought a less costly and simpler lifestyle to fuel his artistic practice. Rejecting the Impressionists’ focus on momentary observation, Gauguin sought to impart a decorative timelessness through the “primitive” people and places he encountered both in the Caribbean and in rural France. It was during this period that Paul Gauguin developed a short-lived working relationship with Vincent van Gogh which would help define the direction Gauguin’s life and art would take from the 1890s through the end of his life. Gauguin and Polynesia includes a gallery of Polynesian sculptures similar to those that Gauguin would have seen at the World’s Fair.

artwork: Paul Gauguin - "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière", 1888-89 Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 38.6 cm. - Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC  -  On view until April 29th.

This brief exposure to the cultures of French Polynesia as well as that of other European colonies, notably Cambodia and Java, provided Gauguin with the final nudge he needed to pursue his idea of creating a Studio of the Tropics, where he and other artists could live and work without the constraints of financial hardship or the formality of life in Western Europe. Very shortly after the Fair, he made several unsuccessful attempts to secure government posts in present-day Vietnam and Madagascar before he successfully received a grant to visit Tahiti, and he left France on April 1, 1891. When Gauguin arrived in Papeete, Tahiti in June 1891, he expected to find himself immersed in a “voluptuous” culture, a paradise of gentle populations set in nature’s abundance. In fact, what he found was a local culture that had been in decline for more than a century, due to disease, famine, warfare and a prohibition on traditional art forms enforced by the Catholic Church, along with the difficult dealings of a colonial bureaucracy much like that he had left behind in France. Deeply disappointed at finding so much of what he had sought to escape and so little of the paradise he had expected, Gauguin enacted his own, restless search for Polynesian art, and introduced his imperfect notions of Polynesian religion and culture into the works of art he sent back to Europe.

The exhibition includes numerous paintings in which Gauguin created the environment he had hoped to find. A motif from a small set of Marquesan ear ornaments, for example becomes a fence keeping viewers from entering a sacred precinct  in Parahi te Marae (The Sacred Mountain), (1892), where a tiki is installed on a Tahitian hillside  where heightened colors prevail. Gauguin and Polynesia includes specific Polynesian art alongside Gauguin’s unique permutations of their imagery and meaning, allowing a more fully informed investigation of the tension between Gauguin’s representations and the true evolution of the Polynesian cultures in which he lived. Gauguin and Polynesia comes to SAM after opening at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (September 24– December 31, 2011). The exhibition was curated by Suzanne Greub, and organized by the Art Centre Basel in collaboration with the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, WA, USA. Curators in Seattle are Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting & Sculpture, and Pam McClusky, Curator of Art of Africa & Oceania at SAM.

artwork: Paul Gauguin - "Parahi Te Marae (The Sacred Mountain)", 1892 - Oil on canvas - 66 x 88.9 cm. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On view at the Seattle Art Museum in "Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise" until April 29th.

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) maintains three major facilities: its main museum in downtown Seattle; the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) in Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill, and the Olympic Sculpture Park on the central Seattle waterfront, which opened on January 20, 2007. The SAM collection has grown from 1,926 pieces in 1933 to nearly 25,000 as of 2008. Its original museum provided an area of 25,000 square feet, the present facilities provide 312,000 square feet plus a 9-acre park. SAM traces its origins to the Seattle Fine Arts Society (organized 1905) and the Washington Arts Association (organized 1906), which merged in 1917, keeping the Fine Arts Society name. In 1931 the group renamed itself as the Art Institute of Seattle. The Art Institute collection formed the core of the original SAM collection and the institute was responsible for managing art activities when the museum first opened. The SAM collection includes approximately 25,000 pieces. Among them are Alexander Calder’s “Eagle” (1971) and Richard Serra’s “Wake” (2004), both at the Olympic Sculpture Park; Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Inopportune: Stage One” (2004), a sculpture constructed from cars and sequenced multi-channel light tubes on display in the lobby of the SAM Downtown; “The Judgment of Paris” (c. 1516-18) by Lucas Cranach the Elder; Mark Tobey’s “Electric Night” (1944); Yéil X’eenh (Raven Screen) (c. 1810), attributed to the Tlingit artist Kadyisdu.axch’; Do-Ho Suh’s “Some/One” (2001); and a coffin in the shape of a Mercedes Benz (1991) by Kane Quaye of Ghana. There are early Italian paintings by Dalmasio Scannabecchi, Puccio di Simone, Giovanni di Paolo, Luca Di Tomme, Bartolomeo Vivarini, and Paolo Uccello. There are paintings by V. Sellaer, Jan Molenaer, Emanuel De Witte, Luca Giordano, Luca Carlevaris, Armand Guillaumin, and Camille Pissarro. This museum also has a large collection of Twentieth Century American paintings by Jacob Lawrence and Mark Tobey. There is an appreciable collection of Aboriginal Australian Art. Visit the museum’s website at …