Ten years ago, I curated a big Gauguin exhibition that was almost a disaster. The best Gauguins were already committed to a rival exhibition or were otherwise unavailable. My host institution, the Complesso del Vittoriano on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, was unsympathetic to my thesis (that Gauguin fled Paris because of his hatred of capitalist modernity), and the big exhibition space was broken up by pillars, ramps, and windows, making it difficult to convey the narrative of Gauguin’s remarkable life and career: 1) early childhood in Peru; 2) peregrinations as a merchant seaman; 3) marriage and middle-class propriety; 4) quitting work as a stockbroker and art dealer to become an Impressionist painter; 5) adventures in Brittany, Martinique, and Tahiti; and 6) death in 1903 in the remote Marquesas Islands, in flight from the law.
Nevertheless, my exhibition turned out pretty well because Gauguin had a good batting average. Even his second-best paintings, sculptures, prints, and ceramics are better than most artist’s best. And when Gauguin is bad, he’s bad in really interesting ways. Take for example his early Interior of the Painter’s House, rue Carcel (1881), shown in “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist,” which debuted this summer at the Art Institute of Chicago and opens this month at the Grand Palais in Paris. It’s a large and ambitious painting—art historians would call it a “Salon picture”—that fails at almost everything. The table and vase of flowers in the foreground are huge and the chair beside them too small. The piano teacher (possibly Gauguin, or else his friend the artist Émile Schuffenecker) and his student (probably his wife, Mette) are obscured by the furniture and lack expression. And the whole thing is too brown. And yet it’s totally compelling, a modern satire of the Neo-Classical Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789) by Jacques-Louis David. In both pictures there is the same empty chair and sewing basket conveying the absent-present father and mother, suggesting a crisis in the nuclear family. It’s a crisis Gauguin lived for the next two decades.
At the other end of Gauguin’s career there is Faa iheihe (Tahitian Pastoral, 1898), a slapdash frieze of Gauguin’s greatest hits where none of the parts belong together. And yet it somehow works. The composition is woven into coherence by the gold-yellow background, meandering branches at the top, and a 4:1:4 rhythm established by the groups of people and animals. A great exhibition could be made of Gauguin’s worst paintings.
The curators of “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” didn’t have to settle for second best. The artworks shown are Gauguin’s finest, with only a few major pictures lacking, notably the huge, manifesto-like Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897) from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. (It was lent to an exhibition a few years ago, and likely never will be again. It’s fragile.) In addition, the exhibition space in Chicago was generous and easily navigable and the works beautifully installed, though too high—an intentional if unfortunate accommodation to the expected large attendance. Even better, the show included twenty-seven of the artist’s ceramics, about the same number of carved, wooden sculptures, and many prints. The ceramics are extremely fragile and thus rarely lent or seen together. The wood carvings (a better word in this case than the grander “sculpture”) are scattered in private as well as public collections and thus also rarely assembled. The prints come mostly from the Art Institute’s collection and are of heartbreaking beauty and subtlety. For all these reasons, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” should be one of the most satisfying and illuminating exhibitions ever dedicated to the artist, surpassing even “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” the celebrated 2014 survey at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that explored some similar themes.
But it’s not. The reason is that it lacks what everybody knows was central to Gauguin’s life and art: sex. By “sex” I don’t just mean bodily (often genital) entanglements. Nor do I mean fetishism or voyeurism. What I mean by sex in Gauguin is the consequential drama created by the intersection of desire, gender, and power. Sex animates the open-mouthed, Degas-inspired, wood-and-plaster Singer (1880) and the partially glazed stoneware Oviri (Savage, 1894), a tiki-like figure of a woman standing over the bloody carcass of a wolf. From behind, it’s clear the sculpture is actually a vase with a lax labial opening. (Gauguin called her a “murderess.”) And sex is central, of course, to Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892), which shows a boyish young woman lying on her stomach, cross-legged, waiting for her lover while a bogeyman (the “tupapaú”) lurks in the background. Here, colonialism and anticolonialism, masculinism and transvestism, and sexual desire and Indigenous religion come together in an unstable and disturbing mix.
In Chicago, sex was obscured by the shadow of “alchemy,” variously defined in the exhibition catalogue as “Gauguin’s . . . startling manipulation of materials to suggest inexpressible thoughts or emotions,” “transmutation and . . . metamorphosis,” and “his exceptional ability to transform matter and see in it qualities that were indiscernible to ordinary mortals.” This is all nonsense. Gauguin was concerned with gross matter, not its purification; the “lower stratum of the body” (as the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin would describe it), not its transcendence; and with desire and satiety, not renunciation and asceticism. If anything, Gauguin turned gold into lead, not vice versa. He liked getting into the mud, whether the actual clay he molded with his hands (never using a wheel) and then fired or the filth he hung on his walls. He had a prized collection of pornography.
Whenever visitors to “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” are brought close to the core of Gauguin’s achievement, they are quickly distracted by tedious presentations of his repetition of motifs across various mediums. We see together eleven manifestations in painting, drawing, ceramic, woodcut, and monotype of the central figure in the astonishing and disturbing painting Te nave nave fenua (Delightful Land, 1892); five iterations of the Hina figure in the background of Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents, 1893); thirteen versions of Day of the God (1894); six of Oviri, etc. The result of this Warhol-like repetition is numbness and diminished desire.
Certainly, the choice to highlight Gauguin’s facture, technique, and translation of motifs across mediums spurs moments of pleasurable surprise or recognition. The immediate proximity of The Yellow Christ (1889), Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ (1891), and the glazed stoneware Self-Portrait in the Form of a Grotesque Head (1889) shows how committed the artist was to the idea of his own alienation and martyrdom. But what most viewers will focus on instead is the comparison itself—for example the reversal of the yellow Christ in the self-portrait, indicating that Gauguin painted it, as well as his own face, while gazing in a mirror. The “grotesque head,” on the other hand, to Gauguin’s left in the painting, is not reversed; it was apparently added later. But such observations are beside the point in an exhibition dedicated to a figure as talented and problematic as Gauguin.
Far from an alchemist who spun magic from dross, Gauguin was a materialist who embraced the terrestrial. The women in his pictures, with their heavy limbs and big feet, are decidedly earthbound. His dildo-headed walking sticks, vaginal ceramic shapes, purposely torn drawings, off-register woodcuts, and dirty gold painted backgrounds are all efforts at profanation. (“All that is sacred is profaned” might have been his motto.) Gauguin refused to participate in the French “civilizing mission” in Polynesia, choosing instead to foment anticolonial rebellion of a moral and erotic as well as political kind. The exhibition “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” brings together many of the artist’s very best (and second-best) works, and must be seen for that reason. But the visitor is advised to refuse the constant, college-classroom appeal to compare and contrast, and simply look, ponder, and feel the heat.