Thoughts on Life, Art, Photography, Technology, Teaching and Travel…..

Gauguin the Man!

Gauguin Exhibition – Metamorphosis MOMA


I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be an artist in France back in the late 1800’s. What an exciting time it must have been, although a challenging and somewhat difficult time for the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists who challenged and broke from Victorian tradition to create a whole new way to paint and translate subject matter.

I’ve been teaching art history for many years and have always been fascinated by artists like Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin. These impressionist artists truly broke new ground. They were the rebels of the traditional art world at that time and wanted to capture and translate the ever changing, fleeting and ethereal quality of light in their vibrant paintings. We can see the roots of modern abstract art sprouting at this time as well – especially with the more expressive Post-impressionist artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin.

Gauguin essentially asks the question in so many words….WHY should I paint the leaves green and the water blue…basically questioning making paintings that look like a realistic photographic representation…he broke away from this adherence to reality and added his own artistic sensibility filtered through his personal aesthetic.

Its almost as if the Post-impressionist artists were rejecting what had been learned in the past about technique and were exploring new ways to express and communicate their feelings about life, death, society and religion.

This past week I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and spent the entire morning at the Gauguin Exhibition called Metamorphosis. It didn’t take long for me to realize the exhibit was going to be an eye opener and great learning / viewing experience. His later work on display was curated and hung beautifully. The first thing I noticed was how prolific he was. There were hundreds of his works (paintings, woodcuts, drawings, oil prints, carvings and sculptures) hanging and displayed in multiple galleries. These later works have an eerie, dark, ominous and primitive quality to them. There was also something very raw and even unsophisticated in this expansive and diverse body of work created during the final years of his life in Polynesia.

The Vollard Suite

The Vollard Suite

There is a detachment and sense of isolation communicated in his Noa Noa Suite for example. I love the rough textures and dark monochromatic hues of his semi-abstract woodcuts. I had no idea of the broad artistic range of Gauguin. He explored and experimented with a variety of mediums including wood sculpture, ceramics, monotypes, oil prints, watercolor and of course oil painting on canvas. Many of his works are simple almost minimalistic compositions of Tahitians. He was also an innovator experimenting with media fusions and oil transfer drawing.

I detected a great deal of spiritual conflict in his art. Peace vs. War, God vs. Sin, Mythology vs. Christianity and Death vs. Life. He paints Tahitian idols and then women who take on the role of Mary in a primitive sense. Throughout the exhibition you’ll notice the face (specter) of death peering out in many of his pieces. He also explores human misery, peasant life, pagan mythology, sex, carnality and even Tahiti as an earthly paradise. The Tahitian woman he paints are sad, somber, introspective, but also exude an inner peace and simple pure innocent beauty.

Its as if Paul Gauguin is desperately seeking /searching for inner peace, redemption and forgiveness yet always haunted by the specter of guilt and death.

I particularly love his oil portraits of Tahitian women. They are sensual yet innocent, pure and earthy. The women exude an inner confidence and sense of calm and peace. His female subjects never seem to smile. They are almost trance like, content and self contained in their own primitive, simple world. There is no doubt he was deeply effected and influenced by his experiences in Tahiti.


I’m amazed at just how much art work he created over his relatively short life span. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gauguin was a tortured soul who was ahead of his time. I sense he was lonely, guilt ridden, tormented and conflicted and infused his art with these personal conflicts both blatantly and subliminally. The disparate colors he used, creative compositional techniques influenced by Japanese prints and abstract quality of his art influenced artists like Matisse and the Fauve’s, in addition to the entire expressionistic movement into the 20th Century. Gauguin blurs the boundaries between sacred and profane in so much of his work.

Essentially Paul Gauguin was not afraid of rejection and followed his own muse. He explores all aspects of the human condition in his art – this comprehensive exhibition called Metamorphosis is a testament to his personal vision as an artist.

Click here to view a multi-media presentation about this exhibit!


Quoted from the MOMA web site. If you are in New York City check out this exhibition that is displayed until June 8th 2014.

“This exhibition focuses on Paul Gauguin’s rare and extraordinary prints and transfer drawings, and their relationship to his better-known paintings and his sculptures in wood and ceramic. Comprising approximately 150 works, including some 120 works on paper and a critical selection of some 30 related paintings and sculptures, it is the first exhibition to take an in-depth look at this overall body of work.

Created in several discrete bursts of activity from 1889 until his death in 1903, these remarkable works on paper reflect Gauguin’s experiments with a range of mediums, from radically “primitive” woodcuts that extend from the sculptural gouging of his carved wood reliefs, to jewel-like watercolor monotypes and large, mysterious transfer drawings.”

I have come to an unalterable decision – to go and live forever in Polynesia. Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thoughts of tomorrow and this eternal struggle against idiots. (Paul Gauguin)

Learn more about the exhibition here!




One comment on “Gauguin the Man!

  1. Pingback: Gauguin the Man! | Ragnarok Connection

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