The statuette was in the 1881 exhibition of the Impressionists, a group that Gauguin wheedled his way into as a collector. At first he was only an amateur artist, holding onto a day job as a stockbroker’s assistant. Yet by 1885 his commitment to art was so total that he had abandoned his family in Denmark and returned to Paris alone. His painting, initially under the influence of Pissarro and other Impressionists, grew bolder and more flamboyant, but he found even greater freedom in objects. He carved a pear-wood sarcophagus, incised with Degas-vintage ballerinas and laughing faces borrowed from Japanese netsuke. He also learned the rudiments of ceramics and started crafting vases, bowls and other containers. Sometimes these were functional, more often they were just decorative, but almost always they were grotesque. Ceramics also started to appear in the paintings, as you can see in this show’s cogent pairings: a still life of oranges in a stoneware bowl, painted in 1888, hangs in front of the bowl itself, its handle gripped by a bathing girl.
Mon Dieu, these ceramics — or “monstrosities,” as he aptly called them. The vases and jugs are wobbly, asymmetric, gloriously uncouth. They hammer the distinction between sculpture and craft into powder. They also easily conflate European, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Mesoamerican motifs, which Gauguin would have studied/stolen from new photographic reproductions as well as colonial expositions. One stoneware vase is shaped like an askew tree stump, with a pair of women’s heads growing from its top. An astounding vase from 1887-88 depicts the Greek myth of Leda and the swan; Gauguin renders the scene around the vessel with a proto-Cubist multiplicity of perspectives, and crafts the vase’s handle out of the cob’s beak and neck. Of course, Leda’s encounter with the swan should properly be called a rape; sexual violence is everywhere in Gauguin’s art, and the ceramics as much as the paintings are imbued with sexual overtones. Several are signed “PGo,” a phonetic initialism that recalls sailors’ slang for a penis.
Ms. Groom, the curator, has done her best work in the first half of the show, which she has staged mostly in a single large gallery that allows for cunning juxtapositions. Gauguin’s ceramics and woodcarvings appear alongside related French, pre-Columbian and Oceanic objects; others sit by later works by the artist that translate the applied arts into paint. “Te Rerioa” (“The Dream”), one of the finest of Gauguin’s later Tahitian pictures, appears through a cutout wall behind a polychrome cabinet that employed similar colored passages a decade earlier. Bathers and Breton women appear grafted onto jugs and braziers, only to recur in similarly outlined form on paper or canvas. Again and again, the bold contours and patches of solid pigment that characterize Gauguin’s mature painting — a style sometimes called cloisonnism, after the jewelry and metalwork technique — appear first in stoneware and oak, and had no need of Polynesian daydreams.
This show therefore pushes the clock back on Gauguin, and maintains that it was in France, rather than the South Seas, where he made his most important breakthroughs. The radically bright fields of color and disappearance of depth that characterize Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings are already visible in his 1888 masterwork “Vision of the Sermon,” whose po-faced, white-capped Bretonnes watch Jacob wrestle with the angel on a field of solid, blazing red. “The Yellow Christ,” painted the next year, stages the Crucifixion on a hillside far more golden than any Breton landscape — a brilliant yellow that he would reuse in his equally illusory Tahitian painting “Parahi Te Marae” (“The Sacred Mountain”).
Thus, when he got to Papeete, in 1891, Gauguin had already spent years distancing himself from direct depiction of waking life. The fantasy world he constructed in his Polynesian paintings — where the French colonial regime was absent, and where young, dark-skinned women seem to do nothing but laze around in the nude — was only the next step in an abandonment of both faithful representation and Impressionist sense-memories.
The Art Institute’s exhibition neither condemns nor excuses Gauguin’s behavior in the South Pacific, and mural-size blowups of French colonial photography make no bones about the regime that undergirded it all. It has only a few of Gauguin’s most important Tahitian pictures, including “Te Rerioa,” the Art Institute’s own “Mahana No Atua” (“Day of the God”) and “Manao Tupapau” (“Spirit of the Dead Watching”), a violet-saturated odalisque depicting a 13-year-old girl euphemistically called Gauguin’s “mistress.” There are also some terrible later hot-colored nudes, little better than pinups. But in Gauguin’s Pacific phase, too, it’s the decorative arts, as well as woodblock prints sometimes carved on dense Polynesian wood, that reveal his unconstrained experiment and his readiness to seek stranger shores.
Just like his early pottery, Gauguin’s prints, the subject of a wonderfully dark show at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014, make a virtue of accident, error, randomness, incongruity. He would gouge the blocks with the same deep veins in his whittled figurines from a decade before, and frequently he would ink the wood blocks irregularly, to produce odd, alienating multiples — such as the haunted prints of Oviri, a pseudo-Polynesian goddess of his own invention. Oviri recurs in a stoneware figurine, fired in a Paris kiln during his last visit to Europe, as a bare-breasted warrior with a wolf beneath her foot.
He continued woodcarving until his last days on the Marquesas Islands, where the drunk, syphilitic Gauguin installed himself in a compound whose lintel was carved with the words “Maison de Jouir,” which the museum coyly translates as “House of Pleasure.” (“House of Orgasms” might be closer to it.)
Many can’t get past that creepiness, just as many can’t abide Wagner’s anti-Semitism, de Chirico’s Fascism, Roman Polanski’s sexual transgressions. If you are among them — if you recoil, justifiably, at the colonial privilege and male dominance that underlie Gauguin’s late paintings — then I plead with you: See this show. By concentrating on the decorative arts, the monstrous vases and the whittled totems, the Art Institute’s show starts to map an approach to contemporary studies of Gauguin that goes beyond that balance-sheet rundown. It insists that what he made, why he made it and how he made it are all intertwined; that we must be formalists and feminists at once; and that we should all be a touch less sure of our responses.
“What I want is a corner of myself that is as yet unknown,” Gauguin wrote in 1889 to his friend and collaborator Émile Bernard. He crossed France and then the oceans, again and again, to find one, with little regard for others. But let’s get real: Is it only the abuses and arrogations that make us bridle when we look at him, or is there something more? Can we accept that we might be scared of Gauguin’s utter freedom — a freedom almost none of us will ever taste ourselves?
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