Gauguin’s Primitive Universe at MoMA

Be Mysterious (1890) Carved and painted lime wood from Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais /Art Resource NY.

Be Mysterious (1890) Carved and painted lime wood from Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais /Art Resource NY.

You can almost hear the rustling pandan leaves, waterfalls rushing into exotic coves, and the drums and chants of fiery Tahitian rituals around powerful idols long since banned by the Christian missionaries…but only if you take the time to get close to the smaller works in MoMA’s revealing sixth-floor show, Gauguin: Metamorphoses through June 8.

Yes, Gauguin’s bright, colorful paintings of island life are displayed, but the show is really about the darker, more primitive experience expressed in Mr. Gauguin’s ceramics, woodcuts, carvings, and monoprints – the works that we rarely get to see en masse.

Hina and Fatu (c. 1892) Carved tamanu wood. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto © 2013 AGO

Hina and Fatu (c. 1892) Carved tamanu wood. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto © 2013 AGO

After nearly two decades plugging away at his day job, weathering a stock-market crash, struggling to stay in the middle class, cranking out artworks in his spare time, and showing with the Impressionists, he just chucked it all, packed a bag, and went to Tahiti in 1891. From his young-adult years working in the merchant marine, he figured Tahiti was as far away as he could get from his family, responsibilities, and the frustrating Paris art scene where others were making it besides him.

Nothing’s perfect, and the Tahiti he arrived in was already changing from contact with the global trade networks of industrialized countries. No matter. Gauguin was captivated by the thought of connecting with the “true” primitive and savage that lived in the myths, lore, and natural beauty of Polynesia and shoving it all into the face of the avant-garde and art-buying public back home.

The curators have assembled all the images Gauguin created for three dramatic series of woodcuts. The rough edges really come out in Noa Noa (1893) and The Vollard Suite, with a few of the gouged-out woodblocks exhibited right next to several states of the same image.

Mahna no varua ino (The Devil Speaks), state IV / IV, from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent). (1893–94). Woodcut from private collection. Courtesy: Galleri K, Oslo. © Reto Rodolfo Pedrini, Zurich

Mahna no varua ino (The Devil Speaks), state IV / IV, from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent).
(1893–94). Woodcut from private collection. Courtesy: Galleri K, Oslo. © Reto Rodolfo Pedrini, Zurich

Black, dark, primitive, edgy – too edgy, in fact, for his dealer, Mr. Vollard, who felt that the prettier oil paintings were a lot more palatable to his clients. (Vollard kept the more expressive primitive prints in the drawer.)

Take a look on MoMA’s special website for the show, which has a detailed timeline for Gauguin’s travels. Clicking on images on the site allows you to zoom in closely on each work. A particularly nice touch is the full digitized version of Gauguin’s unpublished Noa Noa manuscript, which he assembled (but never published) to interpret all the exotic images and symbols of the series for the public and his hoped-for fans. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see the manuscript, page by page.

Oviri (Savage). (1894) Partly enameled stoneware, from Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grasnd Palais /Art Resource NY

Oviri (Savage). (1894) Partly enameled stoneware, from Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN-Grasnd Palais /Art Resource NY

So here’s your chance to examine what was boxed up for so long along alongside magnificently  disturbing sculptures, panels, and reliefs of goddesses, devils, spirits, waves, women, and mountains created out of tamanu and pua wood with the occasional daubs of colored paint. It’s clear that the design and detail of Gauguin’s beautiful symbolist color paintings got a further workout through all of these other works portraying the dark, mysterious side of life forces emanating from the mind of a struggling artist obsessed with the uber-primitive.

Some say that Picasso was inspired to transform his Demoiselles after seeing some of this raw work (exhibited after Gauguin’s death). Say hello to them seven days a week on MoMA’s 5th Floor.

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