What do we make of a painter who borrows liberally from the stories and imagery of other cultures to make his work? A vast show at the Art Institute of Chicago that dives deep into the oeuvre of Paul Gauguin puts the museum’s own collection alongside 150 loan works, and takes a deep look at the politics of cultural appropriation in art. Called “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” and curated by Gloria Groom, it delivers some of the artist’s best-known paintings, including many never before shown in the United States, but emphasizes Gauguin’s uses of rough media like ceramics, wood carving, and printmaking, exploring areas that may not be familiar to American audiences (there are only six ceramics by Gauguin in U.S. collections, for example).
The show opens with a room devoted to Gauguin’s juvenilia, draped in purple-and-yellow striped faux-Parisian wallpaper. There is a monolithic wooden clothing cabinet, from 1881, with colorful drawer faces painted by the artist—foreshadowing his highly decorative later work—and in the oil painting Clovis Sleeping (1884) tender Orientalist filigrees appear on the blue wallpaper behind a sleeping child’s head. Exotic objects that Gauguin collected, including Japanese netsuke (tiny carved sculptures), are on view, too. Most striking here is a marble bust the artist displayed in the Impressionist exhibition of 1878 in Paris: the opposite of what we think of as a Gauguin, it’s a carving of his son so carefully executed, dutifully realistic and monochrome, closer to the linear neoclassicism of Ingres than the exotic color of Delacroix.
By 1886, Gauguin had found his stride in dozens of rough ceramics: pitchers and jugs, busts and cups, made in a pinch-pot, faux-primitivist manner. His clay pieces lend insight into his use of color and form in his painting: there are stoneware works like Portrait Head of Martinique Woman with Kerchief (1887–88), in which the brown of the unglazed stoneware is made an equivalent to the woman’s skin. The pots are beautiful and strange, but multimedia displays, like one that shows a man making pots, the camera tight on his hands as they work clay, are, inexplicably, on the walls of the exhibition alongside paintings and prints. They are distracting.
Gauguin’s first significant excursion into another culture was in Brittany—he depicts northern France as full of quaint customs and closer to mystical truths than urbane Paris. Two fantastic paintings appear here—the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh’s Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, in which pious bonneted Breton women seem to conjure a violent religious scene from old-fashioned Catholic imagination, and Yellow Christ (1889), from the Albright-Knox in Buffalo. There’s also a lot of bric-a-brac: bonnets and various nick-knacks not by Gauguin, but the kind of thing that we see depicted in his work, including ivory earrings that were the basis of latticework fences in the painting The Sacred Mountain (1892) and antique Breton lace.
Gauguin, who was born in Paris, lived in Peru until the age of 6. His childhood there and his Dutch heritage were his claim to being an “outsider” to the culture of the French capital, but when we get to the gorgeously strange blue gouache faces dappled in yellow that he made in Nègreries Martinique (1890)—in which indigo seems to stand in for blackness—we enter territory not well explained by his personal background. There are doors he painted at his Brittany inn, Le Pouldu, featuring a naked and sexualized Caribbean Woman surrounded by sunflowers and a snake, straight from the garden of Eden, and pictures of women like Breton Eve (1889), based on a Peruvian mummy he saw at the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro that year.
The late 1880s and early 1890s may be his strangest era, with French religious themes colliding willy-nilly with cultural references to Tahiti, Martinique, the Marquesas, Panama, and Japan. According to the show’s catalogue, Camille Pissarro once said of Gauguin, “He is always poaching on someone’s ground; now he is pillaging the savages in Oceania.” Granted, Gauguin was not alone: mixing cultures was a common theme of Impressionist art—while he used Japanese fan-shapes to paint scenes from Martinique around 1887, Maximilien Luce was creating fan-shaped pointillist paintings of Paris, for example.
Recent questions surrounding the painter Dana Schutz rise to mind here—when a painter from a privileged cultural background appropriates subject matter from oppressed others, are such practices exploitative? Can they demonstrate an important form of empathy? Gauguin clearly mined the fetishistic stereotypes that sexualized natives in the French colonies—the women as voluptuous Eves, breasts as heavy as ripe apples waiting to be plucked, etc. It’s an uncomfortable time-travel fantasy of prelapsarian paradise in which the corrupt contemporary man “discovers” the pure and primitive culture, or, with an even more pedophilic gaze, the “innocent savage” is sexualized by the mature “civilized” man. Yet ultimately what Gauguin seeks in other cultures is a means to critique his own: it’s the impossibility of artistic creation under capitalism, art’s rule-bound academicism, and the lack of free love in contemporary Paris that are his real subjects.
When Gauguin first spent time in Tahiti, from 1891 to ’93, he sent works back to Paris about Tahitian culture that had very little regard for “facts.” He wrote books like Chez les Maories: Sauvageries (At Home with the Maori: Savage Things, 1893) describing a fantasy culture already scarcely extant due to the introduction of European diseases and religious missionaries. Some of his Tahitian women have blue skin just as his women in the Marquesas did, while others appear in high-necked blue-and-white striped European dresses, like the beautiful young woman in Merahi metua no Tehamana (1893), who is flanked by ripe mangos and a naked sculpture of a woman. Most, like Tahitian Women (1891), appear languid and sexualized.
Paintings of this early 1890s period have beautiful pinks and yellows and greens; they are visually his most knockout work. Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892) is an exotic reversal of Manet’s Olympia (1863), a Tahitian odalisque naked on a bed, guarded by a mysterious spirit form. The Chicago show does a real service by hanging Spirit of the Dead against a bright yellow wall, just as Gauguin showed it in his “Yellow Studio” in Paris, the wall color intended to transport the visitor out of Paris and into the tropical sun. Of course, all this work was meant for Parisian audiences, Gauguin seeking to present a painter “gone native.” Regardless, his show of Tahitian paintings in Paris in 1893 flopped.
The remainder of the exhibition focuses on Gauguin’s surprisingly wan woodblock prints and monotypes. It unmistakably owes much to Jodi Hauptman’s masterful 2016 MoMA show of Degas monotypes, which focused on the inventiveness of the different prints that the artist made by pulling from the same woodblock. Gauguin’s woodblock prints do not quite impress the way that his color-saturated paintings do.
The show returns to Gauguin’s late paintings, occasionally, and many of these have a strong Cézanne-like feel—Polynesian Woman with Children (1901) looks back to that artist’s almond-eyed portraits of his wife Hortense, but also, for me, anticipates some of Alice Neel’s portraiture of cultural outsiders at ease.
While the show’s premise borrows much from the Museum of Modern Art’s 2014 “Gauguin: Metamorphoses” (which also extended understanding of Gauguin through his prints, wood carving, and ceramics), the Art Institute has staged a scholarly show that was four years in the making that mostly improves on that earlier effort. The lavishly printed catalogue is informative, with slightly too-short essays by major art historians, and it shows Gauguin’s collected photographs of Indian, Japanese, and Greek art, which I would have liked to see more of in the show.
The exhibition rightly avoids apologizing for Gauguin’s unsympathetic biography, though there are the kinds of faults that perhaps come with too much planning: Not only is the gift shop stocked with “Polynesian-style tattoos,” but an “Artist as Alchemist Golden Session Ale,” is on tap at the cafe, and a line of Anna Sui sarongs and lipstick was on offer. I don’t know if we really need these Disney-like corporate tie-ins with our shows. Finally, every work on view was unmistakably hung about 4 inches higher than it should have been, causing the paintings to loom and the frame glass to glare at viewers trying to really take a look.
“Gauguin: Alchemist” travels next to the Grand Palais in Paris, where hopefully these issues can be remedied. The questions it raises about how we paint, whom we paint, and who we are, remain profound.