Only a few days left to see this stunning exhibition (finishes on the 13th of January 2013). Go while you still can! Originally published on Kunstpedia.
Running away to escape his Parisian demons, Paul Gauguin sought refuge in his very own paradise lost in the exotic surroundings of Martinique, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Through Gauguin’s voyage to primitive lands and an explosion of colour, modern art finally received the revitalising injection it desperately needed under the stagnant European skies.
Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, the exhibition “Gauguin and the Voyage to the Exotic” follows the artist’s journey to Tahiti, exploring his artistic transition into primitive and authentic worlds where his palette experienced an explosion of colour and expression. However, the carefully curated exhibition by Paloma Alarcó at the Thyssen-Bornemisza goes beyond Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes, but analyses the effect the French artist had on the world of modern art exploring the effect primitivism and colonialism had on movements such as the expressionists, fauvists and on abstract art.
The display at the Thyssen-Bormemisza is split into three themes with eight overall sections. Firstly, Gauguin is studied as a figure in his own right and introduces his seduction by the virginal and unspoiled lands of the tropics. As an artist, Gauguin’s paintings from the South Seas are among some of the most sensual and alluring images that can be found in modern art, not to mention the influence his work exerted on artists like Matisse, Kandinsky and many others. The exhibition also examines Gauguin’s voyage into the exotic as a means to escape civilisation. This is a key turning point, not only in the artistic and personal career of Paul Gauguin, but within the context of avant-garde’s primitivist revival, linking into the final theme: the modern concept and its treatment of the exotic by linking back to ethnography.
The invitation to the exotic didn’t begin with Gauguin, the French artist Eugène Delacroix sought inspiration on the shores of North Africa, where his orientalist depictions of Arab women and scenes from Algerian life were to inspire wanderlust in a young Gauguin. A sensually exotic scene by Delacroix of “Women of Algiers in their Apartment (Femmes d’Alger dans leur intérieur)” painted in 1849 opens the exhibition, with Gauguin’s Tahitian scene “Parau api (What’s New?)”, mirrored besides it. Looking at the paintings side-by-side, we observe the impact Delacroix’s North African paintings had on Gauguin. “Parau api (What’s New?)”, depicts a pair of women reclining on a canary yellow backdrop, whose poses mimic the Algerian women in Delacroix’s scene.
Before Gauguin’s iconic Tahiti, there was Martinique. While Gauguin’s time in the Caribbean was brief, its effect on his artistic development was intense. Martinique was the first time the artist used the tropics as his muse, where the landscape and the local people would forever modify his pictorial language.
In Gauguin’s Martinique paintings, his form is still underdeveloped when compared with his later Tahitian works. The composition of the artist’s paintings from his Caribbean period drew from Cézanne, with their long and oblique brushstrokes, bestowing his paintings not with the clear brilliance of his later works, but with a vibrant, if not rough, texture in his canvases.
His painting, “Coming and Going, Martinique” from 1887 is a good example of this style. We see the effect the exotic had on the artist’s work, yet his palette is dulled and less daring than his later paintings, but it marks the beginning of a new era for Gauguin. When he travelled to Martinique, Gauguin was accompanied by his friend Charles Laval, whose work is displayed side-by-side in the exhibition. We can see in Laval’s Martinique landscapes that he shared Gauguin’s decorative brushstroke application.
Gauguin’s time in Tahiti was the creative peak of the artist’s life. His time on the South Pacific island allowed him to focus on the rich local culture and the brilliant nature that surrounded him, bringing out a synthesist style that was based on large areas of brilliant colour. In Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, colour conveys meaning, as Gauguin begins to treat his palette as form of emotional expression. It’s not only his thoughts and feelings that are communicated on canvas through the bright colours, but they are also rich in symbolic content.
The display showcases some striking examples of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, most notably, “Mata Mua (In Olden Times),” “Two Tahitian Women,” “Matamoe, Death. Landscape with Peacocks.” His paintings are nostalgic, depicting a “Paradise Lost” of an innocent and ancient world dying in the advent of colonialism.
However, it’s not just the outside world that darkened Gauguin’s own tropical paradise. Gauguin was suffering from late stage syphilis, which caused deterioration in both his mental and physical health, transforming his paintings into darker and more sinister compositions – blurring the boundaries between his Tahitian paradise and personal hell.
Up until now, the exhibition mostly focussed on Gauguin’s own travels and creative development. “Beneath the Palm Trees,” commences an examination of the artists who found inspiration in Gauguin’s exotic journeys. The theme of the jungle became a new source for the avant-garde artists to tap into, giving modern art the desperate injection of new ideas it needed after a crisis that wasn’t just aesthetic, but a moral and political one also.
Gauguin played a crucial role in the transformation of modern art. If we examine Gauguin’s own interpretation of symbolism, whose analogy married art to the dream world, Gauguin manages to transport that into a self-contained fantasy. By combining the primitive and savage worlds of the South Pacific with his own symbolist ideals, Gauguin grew creatively as an artist through his relationship with untamed nature, and whether their inspirations were real or imaginary, many artists followed suit.
The wild and the savage offered a path to innocence that appealed to the artists of the early 20th century, where childish regression became mirrored in contemporary art. Gauguin’s exotic resonated to an obvious extent with artists like Rousseau and Matisse, among others, but Picasso found artistic companionship with the exotic and childish primitivism. Picasso might have found inspiration through African art or the primitivist paintings of the Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani, but he still searched for this child like innocence from outside of his own cultural sphere in the same manner as Gauguin.
Artists whose work clearly show direct influence from Gauguin are seen in the exhibition, Henri Rousseau’s “Tropical Landscape: An American Indian struggling with a gorilla,” echoes the symbolist landscapes from Gauguin’s Tahitian scenes, Emil Nolde’s palette is a tribute to the bold colours of the French emigré artist, and Ernest Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Müller’s nudes evoke the exotic sensuality of Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.
Ethnography became a popularised trend in the early 20th century, as more artists discovered a new way of viewing the world thanks to Gauguin’s contribution to modern art. The French fauves and the German expressionists grew from Gauguin’s artistic gaze to seek out the different and the “Other.”
To fauvism, expressionism and Russian primitivism, Gauguin will remain the artist who set out into the wild in search of a new vision, who became a canon to a whole new generation of artists, whether they took to the exotic in ethnographic museums or went on their own voyages. We can see his influence in displayed works by Mikhail Larionov’s “Blue Nude,” Henri Manguin’s “The Prints” or Kirchner’s nudes.
Many avant-gardes explored countries closer to home, such as North Africa, in search of a new pictorial language of light and colour. Kandinsky’s oil paintings are early works that are uncharacteristic of the abstract artist, but show a growing interest in space, colour and form inspired by Tunisian scenes, although we begin to see the brilliant use abstract forms combined with colour that take shape in his later works. The same is seen in the paintings by Paul Klee and August Macke, whose abstract forms a far from Gauguin’s symbolist paintings, but attribute their palette and exotic themes to the artist.
The exhibition concludes with Matisse and F.W. Murnau’s journey to Tahiti. Matisse’s bright, brilliant colours and primitive lines stem from Gauguin’s influence, but in 1930, Matisse also sought inspiration in Polynesia, coinciding with the production of the film by the German expressionist director F.W. Murnau, “Taboo: A story of the South Seas.” Matisse’s journey to Tahiti was for pleasure, and while he painted and drew landscapes and portraits of the actors from Murnau’s film, Tahiti moved his work into an alternative view of the island. Matisse’s perspective is different, and his Tahitian paintings lack that same raw creativity Gauguin found in his lost piece of paradise.
Gauguin escaped civilisation, throwing himself into the Tahitian world that impacted art in a way that was no longer sophisticated or decadent. It consumed him, inside and out, and left a huge mark on the art that secured his succession and artistic legacy.
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.