We rediscover Paul Gauguin in a travelling exhibition from Chicago Art Institute to Paris Grand Palais.
“Artist as alchemist” shows a frenzied experimenter whose deepest need was not mythic purity in the South-Seas but an artistic language no one had yet spoken.
Gauguin is more fashionable than ever. More than the previous retrospectives at the National Gallery in Washington and the Tate Modern in London, this show understands his sojourns in French Polynesia as just a few stops of a long quest for unknown places, unknown styles, unknown images.
He never trained as an artist. Gauguin was born in 1848, spent his early years in Peru and enlisted in the French marine as a teenager. From 17 to 23 he was at sea. Back to land, he was only an amateur artist.
By 1885 his commitment to art was total and he abandoned his family. His Parisian paintings, initially under the influence of Pissarro and Impressionists, grew bolder and more flamboyant.
He got to Tahiti in 1891 and spent years distancing himself from direct depiction of waking life. His art reveal his unconstrained experiment and his readiness to seek stranger shores.
The fantasy world he constructed was only the next step in an abandonment of faithful representation and Impressionist sense-memories.
“What I want is a corner of myself that is as yet unknown” Gauguin wrote to artist-friend Emile Bernard.
He inspired his art from young, dark-skinned women who seem to do nothing but laze around in the nude. Most Tahitian pictures depict a 13 year old girl euphemistically called his “mistress.”
His sensuality is overwhelming with paintings imbued with sexual overtones. Can we accept that we might be scared of Gauguin’s utter freedom… a freedom none of us will ever taste?