'Gauguin and Polynesia' Explores the Artist's Elusive Paradise at SAM

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Paul Gauguin, 'Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière' (1888 or 1889); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

As wonderful as the Seattle Art Museum‘s permanent collection is, it’s always the touring exhibits that generate a buzz around town. Last year the Picasso exhibition became Seattle’s must-see attraction, and this year Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise looks set to replicate that feat.

If Paul Gauguin doesn’t feel like such a large draw, then bear in mind that Picasso himself shows Gauguin’s influence. And this exhibit is more than just your average retrospective. The exhibit’s stay at the Seattle Art Museum – from February 9 through April 29 – is its only appearance in the US this year, and it goes beyond Gauguin’s work to explore his complex relationship with the art and culture of Polynesia.

It’s always illuminating when galleries exhibit major works and their influences side-by-side, and the Polynesian element of the exhibit is eye-opening in its own right, offering many artifacts and artworks that haven’t been seen on American shores before. In total there are almost 60 works by Gauguin on display, alongside over 60 works of Polynesian art – a tropical treasure trove in the heart of Seattle’s downtown.

For those who are unfamiliar with Gauguin’s life and his art the exhibit acts as a suitable primer, following a biographical chronology as the budding artist leaves Paris for Tahiti, taking with him a love of ancient culture and “primitive” art. At first his search for authenticity proves elusive, and you can see first-hand his attempts to marry his early experiences with a Parisian taste for the exotic. It’s when he finally turns his back on the fashions and fads of France, however, that those highly expressive colors and stylized, sculpture-like forms start to show through.

Paul Gauguin, 'The Bathers' (1897); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Sam A. Lewisohn.

It’s here that the Polynesian element of the exhibit is particularly useful, providing a physical expression of Gauguin’s familiar canvases. There are few direct influences on display, the exhibition offering instead a visual overview of the culture and the artwork that Gauguin immersed himself in during this period. The stark, starved figure of the Moai Kavakava (Cadaverous Male) is a fine example of the alien and exotic element that Gauguin found himself drawn to, and its gaunt expression and hunched pose would later surface in his depictions of Christ.

Oval bowl on small feet (c. 1865); New Zealand, Wero Taroi of Ngati Tarawhai for Gilbert Meir.

Of special interest, too, is the section on Gauguin’s time in Auckland, New Zealand, a period in his career that’s often overshadowed by his fascination with Tahiti. The sketchbook on display shows just how deeply the native Maori art affected the visiting artist, and the crafted pieces in the exhibit – ranging from carved canoe prows to ornamental bowls – give a succinct but impressive overview of this different Polynesian style.

It’s worth stopping for a moment in front of the carved ancestor figure in the exhibit’s penultimate gallery, and imagining it within the setting of the traditional wharenui (meeting house) pictured behind it. I was able to visit this particular wharenui in Waitangi during my own New Zealand travels, and it’s easy to see the pull that such a visually vibrant Polynesian culture had on the visiting artist.

Lovers of Gauguin’s paintings will find much to savor in Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, but in this instance that truly is only half the story. The Polynesian artifacts lend a depth and a context to his work that go beyond the manifestos of post-impressionism, and unveil an artistic culture that feels almost as fresh today as it did to a young Paul Gauguin over a century ago. And that’s paradise indeed.

Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise is at the Seattle Art Museum from February 9-April 29, 2012. Tickets for Gauguin and Polynesia are on sale now on the museum’s website and at all three museum locations. Tickets are free for SAM members, however members must reserve their tickets in advance, either online or in person, to guarantee entry during days and times that may otherwise sell out.

Dan Coxon is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, available here as a Kindle ebook or in paperback via Amazon, Createspace and other outlets.

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