May 15, 2014

"Gaugin: Metamorphoses" at MoMA

Mention the artist Paul Gauguin and the immediate impression that springs to mind is of his brightly colored Modernist paintings of native women in tropical landscapes.  But these well known works are just the tip of the Gauguin iceberg, and a visit to MoMA's current exhibition, entitled "Metamorphoses", will reveal that there is a whole lot more to this artist's Ĺ“uvre than most people realize.

The exhibition focuses on the later years of Gauguin's life - after his stint as a stockbroker, after his brush with the Impressionist painters, and after his forays into Symbolism, Japonism and Synthetism.  By the late 1880s his disenchantment with all things European had driven him to explore more "unspoiled" lands - a quest that took him first to Martinique and later to Tahiti, French Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands where he died in 1903.

"Hina and Fatu" c. 1892
Wood sculpture

Remarkably, Paul Gauguin had no formal art training yet his natural talent and a curious mind led him to explore a wide variety of expression.  His desire to remove himself from his bourgeois background freed him to proceed along a less orthodox path, and he made many discoveries along the way.  This exhibition is a revelation of sorts as the curators emphasize not the famous Modernist paintings, but rather the lesser known but equally powerful prints, transfer drawings, totemic sculptures (see above) and ceramics.

Divided into the periods of his two extended trips to the South Pacific, "Metamorphoses" presents a fascinating mix of art forms that complement each other with their primitive yet accomplished style.  Gauguin embraced his new habitat and this passion is clearly evident in his portrayals of the local scenes, deities, women and customs.  His study of printing processes - lithography, zincography, woodcuts and monotypes - opened up a new spectrum for expression and while the subjects may have mirrored his paintings, the process of printing allowed him to experiment with elements of tone, color and shading in a totally different way.

Take, for example, his interpretations of Oviri, or "savage" in Tahitian, an imaginary figure with which Gauguin felt a strong personal affiliation.  His fixation on Oviri manifested itself in sculpture...

in oil painting..

"E haere oe i hia (Where are you going?)", 1892

in a watercolor monotype with watercolor highlights...

in a woodcut...

and in a woodcut with watercolor coloration...

The exhibition "Gauguin:  Metamorphoses" was a true surprise in its scope and its emphasis on works other than traditional painting.  I found it fascinating and enjoyed the chance to observe the imagery evolve as he developed and re-worked various themes and models.  It is a trip to an exotic land right here on 53rd Street!

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