By Kerry Marks
Paul Gauguin is not an artist without controversy. He existed within the context of a colonial society. In rebellion of his contemporaries and predecessors, he referred to himself as a “savage” and longed for what he saw as “primitive” within both his art and his life. Further, his sexual relationships with teenage Polynesian girls held far too much power imbalance to be seen as moral by modern standards. Yet, his work carries a great amount of influence in Modern Art. One can see his style reflected within the images of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
In “Paul Gauguin: The Art of Invention,” the Saint Louis Art Museum seeks to highlight the evolution of Gauguin’s art in its varied forms throughout his long career and his travels. Many of the works come from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, supplemented by SLAM’s own collections and a few pieces from other local collections, all to focus on Gauguin’s art within the context of his influences.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848, but his experiences traveling the word began at the age of three when his family fled to Peru due to the unstable political climate in France. His father died on the journey and he spent the next four years living in Peru with his mother and her extended family. Such influences creep into his early work, such as “Woman Sewing,” a painting he showed at one of his impressionist exhibitions in 1881. Originally titled “Study of a Nude,” the piece depicts a woman mending a piece of clothing with a type of realism not common at the time. Behind her, a mandolin and Peruvian textile hangs on the wall. SLAM brings attention to the background by exhibiting the piece next to one of their own Peruvian textiles, similar in composition.
Gauguin’s life included an education in a Catholic boarding school, traveling the world in the French navy, and living in Denmark. He befriended such artists as Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh. He spent time in the French Colonies of Martinique and Tahiti. Throughout each gallery, SLAM brings attention to each of these important influences as Gauguin’s art evolves from his early Impressionism to his more distinctive post-Impressionist style of flat images, bold colors, and prominent outlines.
While better known as a painter, Gauguin experimented in many forms of media. He was a sculptor, a printer, and even a writer. In 1948 the actor and native Saint Louisian, Vincent Price gifted the art museum with a 91 page manuscript hand written by Gauguin titled, “L’Esprit Moderne et le Catholicisme” or “Modern thought and Catholicism.” The book discusses his views on religion, weaving together Catholicism with other theologies, such as Buddhism and native Polynesian religions. SLAM presents this unique piece, surrounded by his woodcut prints depicting spiritual themes with an amalgam of religious influences.
Whether or not one perceives the evolution of Gauguin’s work into a more abstract post-Impressionism as inventive or not seems a matter of opinion. Mark Twain once wrote in his autobiography, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.” With each contextual display, SLAM demonstrates pieces and sources for Gauguin’s kaleidoscope, but it seems to the modern age that one person’s invention might be another’s appropriation. The primitivism of his invention might have been considered revolutionary during his time, but within the context of modern eyes can be disturbing. Can one simply put Gauguin within the context of his age and leave him there? Can one divorce the art from the man? Those are among many of the questions this exhibition raises.