The superficial outline of the life of Paul Gauguin, the groundbreaking, convention-defying French post-Impressionist artist, is widely known. If you were to condense it into a Twitter-like post it might read: “Born in Paris, 1848; childhood in Peru; joined merchant marine; stockbroker and family man in Paris; chucks it all for painting and heads to Tahiti in 1891. Dead at 54.”
‘GAUGUIN: ARTIST AS ALCHEMIST’ When: June 25 – Sept. 10 Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Info/tickets: www.artic.edu
And of course there are the emblematic paintings from the years the artist spent in Brittany, on the French-Caribbean island of Martinique, and most crucially in the South Pacific, the inspiration for his exotic, dreamy, erotically-charged canvases that burst with vivid colors and capture the beauty and mystery of the islands’ indigenous women.
But there is a great deal more to discover about Gauguin’s art, particularly the ways in which his enthusiastic appropriation of other cultures was manifested in three-dimensional works of sculpture, ceramics, decorative wood carvings, furniture decoration and the transformation of found objects. And it is this aspect of the artist’s work — displayed alongside some of his most famous paintings, and a vast collection of prints — that is at the heart of the massive new exhibition, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist,” that will run June 25 – Sept. 10 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then travel on to the Grand Palais in Paris in collaboration with the Musee d’Orsay.
The Gauguin exhibition is the brainchild of Gloria Groom, Chair of European Sculpture and Painting, and the David and Mary Winton Green Curator at the Art Institute. It includes 240 works drawn from the Institute’s own collection (which has one of the world’s largest holdings of the artist’s works on paper), and from museums and private collections from around the globe, all assembled to help explore Gauguin’s ambition to “push boundaries and defy definition.” It is the largest ever public presentation of the artist’s ceramics and groupings of other objects, now reunited for the first time since they left his studio.
The Art Institute is still renowned for its 1988 Gauguin retrospective, created in collaboration with the Musee d’Orsay and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. And Groom learned much about the artists from her extensive research for the Institute’s 2001 exhibition, “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South,” which explored the stormy period when the two artists, both in their thirties, tried to work in tandem. But for Groom, the spark for this new show came in the form of two purchases made by the Art Institute during the past decade.
“In 2007, the museum bought a carved, polychrome cabinet by Gauguin that got me thinking,” she said. “Not much later it bought one of his small ceramic pieces that still had the price tag affixed to the bottom, from when it was on sale by Theo Van Gogh [Vincent’s art dealer brother]. So I began to think it was time to delve into the many dimensions of Gauguin’s creative process that people don’t know, and showcase his work in many different mediums.”
As for the use of the word “alchemist” in the exhibition’s title, Groom explained: “I wanted to draw people’s attention to the vast range of raw materials he used, and the many different ways in which he turned them into very beautiful objects. And I wanted to suggest his links to mysticism and symbolism, as well as the later Arts and Crafts movement. Of course there’s also the pop culture reference to ‘Game of Thrones,’ and several characters’ visit to the Alchemists’ Guild. Plus [and Groom laughs at this] the word sounds great in French.”
The work outside of painting is gloriously alive, organic, richly textured, imaginative, and far outside the norms of both the academic painting of Gauguin’s time, and even the envelope-pushing art of the Impressionists. As Groom noted: “You get the feeling that you could give him any raw material and he would make something beautiful.” And that is evident in everything from his works of leaded pottery with colored glazes and unglazed stoneware vases, to decorative walking sticks, a carved wooden barrel, designs for fans and even a small, strange, pearwood sarcophagus with iron hinges.
As Gauguin himself proclaimed: “It’s precisely an endless kind of art that I’m interested in, rich in all sorts of techniques, suitable for translating all the emotions of nature and humanity.”
And while it is the Tahitian paintings for which Gauguin is most famous, his fascination with all things “ethnographic” began much earlier.
“From the start his life was very different from that of most French artists,” said Groom. “His family moved to Peru to flee political chaos in France, and he spent the first six years of his life there, exposed to a different culture and language. He went around the world twice while in the merchant marine, and brought things home from various ports of call. He never went to art school, and he crafted various objects from the start, while he was teaching himself to paint. He had a very global life. He understood that materials gave meaning to things, although painting was where the money was. And he was ahead of his time in terms of the way he thought beyond the canvas.”
The exhibition has been organized in two sections.
“The first part tries to create a sense of adventure and is very open, with an in-the-round island mentality, and with groupings of objects that can be seen from all sides, and are not arranged chronologically,” said Groom. “They suggest the experiments and trial-and-error quality of the work, and his move from two dimensions to three. The second half of the show is more straightforward, with both paintings and objects from the Polynesian years playing off each other.”
“Gauguin was a restless, complicated personality, always seeking recognition,” said Groom. “On the one hand he was the respectable French citizen with a Danish wife and five children. But he also was the adventurer, and even at the end of his life, when he was sick, he went to the Marquesa islands, worried that he was getting stale and looking for fresh inspiration.”