BWW Reviews: GAUGUIN: METAMORPHOSES Celebrates Mastery Across Art Forms
Paul Gauguin. Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit. c. 1900.
Oil transfer drawing, sheet: 22 1/16 x 17 13/16" (56.1 x 45.3 cm).
The art world has really never known what to do with Paul Gauguin. Yes, he is often pointed to as a major modern painter, only to be shoved off to the side in major accounts of the development of modernism. Art critics and art historians revel in his color, his verve, his sense of the primitive and adventurous--but when it comes down to the solid tasks of assigning theories and writing essays, Gauguin and his work are regularly marked off as a point of entry to the definitive "primitivism" of Picasso and Matisse, little more. Marketing-wise, he has always struck me as a much harder sell than Monet or van Gogh or Renoir; he's formally warped in ways that these three of his contemporaries never are, which makes it that much more difficult to put him in a museum rotunda or on a souvenir postcard.
This spring, the Museum of Modern Art has done the only thing you can do with an artist so resistant to simple salesmanship and to equally simple theories: present Gauguin in all his seductive irreducibility. Gauguin: Metamorphoses is devoted mainly to works on paper, with paintings and sculptures accounting for only 30 or so of the 160 items on display. As organized by MoMA curator Starr Figura and curatorial assistant Lotte Johnson, the exhibition isn't necessarily a quarrel with the usual medium hierarchies--first painting and sculpture, then all that other stuff--hierarchies that appear finally irrelevant in the case of the self-taught Gauguin. The task of this exhibition is to suggest the stores of inspiration that "wood carving, ceramics, lithography, woodcut, monotype, and transfer drawing" all unlocked--to pay homage to Gauguin's breadth without clumsily clustering his biography or his working methods around a system. And in that task, Gauguin: Metamorphoses triumphs.
Figura and Johnson have set up their exhibition in the International Council gallery for Special Exhibitions, the same space that hosted the effortlessly entertaining Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary last autumn. Quite a bit of quiet curatorial wisdom went into the installation, which draws you into its depths but never suggests a point of summation or culmination for Gauguin's art--because there weren't such points, just process and discovery and reinvention. While the exhibition defines Gauguin as a formal innovator, it also evokes the Gauguin of myth and mysticism that, admit it or not, even the most hard-edged formalist finds irresistible. This is effected in a few strokes, too; the walls are painted a dusky blue that recalls Gauguin's high-mystical painting The Moon and the Earth, but also brings to mind the loneliness and ecstasy of Douanier Rousseau.
This will be the last comparison for a while, since Gauguin: Metamorphoses doesn't directly place Gauguin's works in dialogue with anybody else's. Even Gauguin's life's story is told mostly using maps, captions, and one succinct timeline near the entrance. His early stint as a stockbroker and his continuing attention to the Parisian art world aren't drawn out in any special detail, and his attitudes toward non-European societies--primarily Tahiti, but then the Marquesas Islands in his last couple years--must be gleaned from the exhibition entries and their glosses. Instead, the most intriguing correspondences involve sets of zincographs and woodcuts, which subject the same figures to radical variations in color, shading, outlining, and background depth.