While my mother was in New York City in April, we did a little gallery-hopping, as is our habit. I’d clipped the review of an exhibit of collages by Romare Bearden at a gallery on 57th Street and the weekend Mom arrived, there was an ad in the Times for a gallery show of Picasso portraits in far-west Chelsea. There were a few other potentially interesting exhibits, but those were the ones we ended up catching, plus one at the Marlborough, a few doors west of the Bearden show.
On Monday, 18 April, Mom and I took two busses over to the west Chelsea area between 10th and 11th Avenue to check out two galleries showing artists in which we were interested. One, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery on West 26th Street, had a show of the works of colorist Ken Noland (who died in January 2010), but I’d never thought that, like most museums, many commercial galleries are also often closed on Mondays, and Mitchell-Innes was one. (I tried to convince Mom to go back over on another day before she left, but she just didn’t feel like making the trek to far-west Chelsea again. I mentioned Noland in passing in “Morris Louis,” my report on an exhibit at the Hirshhorn in Washington in November 2007, posted on ROT on 15 February 2010; and in my article “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)” on 18 January 2010.) In a New York Times article about the Chelsea art scene, Roberta Smith described the Noland show as an “invigorating survey of early, casually geometric stain paintings” emphasizing “unknown, idiosyncratic works.” Noland was a Washington artist, part of the Washington Color School like his friend Morris Louis, and I’m sorry I couldn’t convince Mom to make a second attempt to see the exhibit.
(Mom did remind me that back in the late ‘50s, when my parents were part of a small group that owned the Gres Gallery in Washington, Noland had wanted to show his work there. The managing partner, who actually ran the gallery, a respected venue for one-artist and theme shows, declined because she didn’t want Gres to become known as a Washington gallery. She won that battle: Gres was only the second gallery in the U.S. to mount a solo show of Fernando Botero’s work—MoMA bought Botero’s Mona Lisa from the Gres show—and the first to exhibit abstract paintings from Poland, a show MoMA took to New York; but as a result several artists like Noland and Morris never showed at Gres. By the turn of the decade, though, most of the partners, many of whom were Foreign Service officers, were transferred out of the country—my own parents went to Germany in 1962—and Gres Gallery closed. It had provided me with an exciting and eye-opening art education before I was a teenager and the influence has remained strong ever since. “Helping out” in the gallery—I stuffed envelopes and such—and meeting artists at the vernissages the partners hosted are some of the most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood.)
The other gallery in the area for which we were headed was the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street, and on the chance that it might be the one gallery open on Mondays, we walked down the five blocks—and sure enough, it was indeed open! Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou (that’s “. . . Crazy Love”), on display through 25 June, included several dozen portraits—in paint, ink, and pencil as well as plaster and bronze—of Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77), the young mistress, model, and muse of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The works, curated by John Richardson, the artist’s biographer, and Diana Widmaier Picasso, an art historian and the granddaughter of the painter and his model, all date between 1927, when the two met by chance on a Paris street, and 1940; several portraits of their daughter, Maya (b. 1935), either alone or with her mother, are also on view. (Diana Widmaier Picasso, b. 1957, the co-curator of the exhibit, is Maya’s daughter.) The art generally shows the growth of the relationship between the artist and his model, from her earliest portrait, the drawing Marie-Thérèse coifée d’un beret (Marie-Thérèse wearing a beret, 1927) in which she’s still 17 before the affair began, moving on to the next drawing, Portrait de Marie-Thérèse (Portrait of Marie-Thérèse, 1935), which now depicts the young woman in a clearly sexual attitude. Interestingly, even though Picasso was already becoming well-known and was no longer the novice artist of his early days of Realism (he introduced himself to the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse by taking her to a bookstore and showing her a monograph of his works on sale there), several of the pieces are realistic or nearly so, especially several of the sketches (like the two just named). Most, however, cover Picasso’s several styles—he shifted from technique to technique almost yearly, I think—for the dozen years during which the works were created. In fact, Smith asserts that Marie-Thérèse “inspired Picasso to review and preview nearly all the phases of his long career . . . .”
In the Chelsea article, Smith described L’amour fou as “a big, museum-quality show,” and that’s accurate. (I suppose any show of Picasso’s work could be small, but a curator’d have to work hard for it not to be “museum-quality.” According to the Gagosian, the exhibit was inspired by the successes of several other recent Gagosian shows: Picasso: Mosqueteros (New York, 2009) and Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (London, 2010). The gallery describes Marie-Thérèse as “the primary inspiration for Picasso’s most daring aesthetic experiments in the decade to come.” I generally distrust superlatives like that—it’s always arguable what’s “the most daring” and what’s only second-most, for instance, depending on your threshold for innovation—but this show certainly covers a gamut of experimentation and new styles, not just for Picasso, but for modern art. The exhibit contains not only paintings and the bronze and plaster sculptures I mentioned, but drawings and prints as well as several small carved wooden pieces. (These latter, about the size of large toothbrushes, along with some bronzes that seem to have been cast from the wooden models, are reminiscent of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, a comrade of Picasso’s.) Generally unified by the subject, though not all the works are specifically of Marie-Thérèse or even Maya, such as Femme nue dans un fauteuil rouge (Nude woman in a red chair, 1932) or Femme lisant à la table (Woman reading at the table, 1934), the show is an excellent primer on Picasso both for the aficionado and the novice. Because of the artist’s constant shifting of style and technique, the art on display never seems repetitive—especially since the curators didn’t arrange the 80-plus works in chronological order, so there’s no obvious progression from one stylistic adjustment to the next. Clearly, if you don’t like Picasso, then this isn’t a show for you, but if you do, or are just curious about the work of the man once dubbed “the most famous artist in the world,” then the Gagosian’s collection is perfect. Add to this the lagniappe that several of the pieces have never been seen in the U.S. before.
Two days later, we again boarded a city bus and traveled up to 57th Street, heading for the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and a small show of 21 collages by Romare Bearden (1911-88). Since we came up on 6th Avenue, we passed the Marlborough Gallery first, however, where I knew that Tom Otterness’s sculptures were on display—so we made a detour. (I’d taken Mom to the 8th Avenue/14th Street subway station some time ago to show her the installation of Otterness’s tiny bronze figures all over the corridors and platforms. I published a profile on ROT of the artist and Life Underground on 27 April.) In the atrium of 40 W. 57th outdoors, where large works by several artists, including Fernando Botero, are on public view, there’s a monumental Otterness showing three figures in the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” pose (the sculpture’s just called See No Evil) but cast in Otterness’s characteristic style. The building’s lobby also contains a number of pieces, including Otterness’s whimsical Bear Riding Bull—which depicts exactly what the title suggests: a bear in suit and tie sitting astride a bull that’s a sort of gentler rendition of Charging Bull, the huge bronze beast in Bowling Green Park. Then we went up to the second floor gallery and spent an hour or so walking through the display of Otterness’s bronze sculptures, a few Botero works (both paintings and bronzes), one or two Jacques Lipchitzes, a wonderful Red Grooms, and several new artists we hadn’t encountered before. The Grooms piece is this year’s Snow Down, inspired by the snowstorm this past winter and the city’s inadequate response to it. (Grooms calls the three-dimensional work, which depicts a New York City neighborhood buried under snow, his homage to Mayor Bloomberg.) Among the pieces still on view from Tom Otterness: Animal Spirits (23 February-26 March) is Big Cat, a monumental bronze which may be either a huge statue of a house cat or a representation of an actual “big cat”; given Otterness’s cartoon-like style, it could be either, but my money’s on the huge house cat. (The figure’s too cute to be a real predator.) There’s also a series of middle-sized bear sculptures in various poses—Standing Bear, Sitting Bear, and so on—that are awfully reminiscent of the Pooh doll that used to be on display in the Donnell Library. I’m sure that Otterness had Pooh in mind at least subliminally, though I don’t think he intended to do a “take” on Milne’s characters. Of course, it could be just me . . . .
A few doors east, we visited the small Rosenfeld Gallery to see Romare Bearden Collage: A Centennial Celebration. (Like Tennessee Williams and Ronald Reagan, who received considerable attention earlier this year, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Beaden’s birth.) As interesting as the Picasso show was, the much smaller Bearden show could easily take several hours to navigate because each piece is so fascinating and engaging. Aside from the subjects of the works, which cover a variety of aspects of the black experience—or experiences as the artist saw it, some actual and some imagined—the collage technique makes each picture a technical wonder as well. (It’s not at all surprising that Bearden was an influence on playwright August Wilson, who said Bearden’s work "was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn't thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.") It’s hard not to go up close to each one and see how Bearden made it, using cut-out photos, both black-and-white and color, from magazines or newspapers; bits of cloth; and just about anything else the artist found useful. (I suspect Bearden wasn’t just making collages, but bricolages as well. He also manipulated his sources somewhat: according to Roberta Smith, some of the black-and-white pictures were rephotographed and enlarged by Photostat.) Mother and I had had a mildly unpleasant encounter at the Gagosian Gallery when we leaned in close to one of the Picassos and a guard got testy, but at the little Rosenfeld we had no problem getting up close and personal, so to speak. Collages, of course, are not just abstract or expressionistic images, like a painting, but they have a texture that’s unique to each work and it’s just too enticing to see how Bearden created that aspect of the picture.
A few weeks later, when I went to Washington, Mom and I went down to the Mall to take in the large Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery. As I have at several exhibitions in recent years, I found I had to linger at each painting or sculpture and read the wall panel because the information was so interesting and instructive. At Romare Bearden, I had to linger also, but it was to scrutinize the artwork itself for the marvel of its construction. Ever since those years in the ‘50s when I hung around the Gres and met some of the artists, none of whose names meant anything to me at the time—I just knew they were artists and created the works I saw at the gallery—I’ve become fascinated with how that kind of creative personality fashions her or his art. I’ve been an actor and director and I write some—though not what is generally called “creative writing”—but I’m confounded by the way an artistic mind generates ideas. I know how an actor creates, at least as it worked in me, and I can imagine a little how a writer conjures words—though the more innovative wordsmiths bewilder me—but I have difficulty imagining how visual artists “think” in images. (I often have the same confusion about composers—I can’t conceive of thinking in musical notes; it’s a mystery to me.) I even made collages (cut-out construction paper, to be sure) as a child, inspired by a collagist exhibited at the gallery, but the working of the true artistic brain still mystifies me.
Of course, it helps that Bearden was a marvelous artist. (In her New York Times review of the show, Roberta Smith asserted that Bearden didn’t become a “great artist” until he started making collages in the 1960s. I don’t have the credentials to make a statement like that—or evaluate Smith’s—but I can afffirm that these collages are terrific no matter your perspective.) The works, which were created between 1964 and 1983, are colorful and stunning, filling the small galleries with vibrant and irresistible images. Bearden depicted scenes of rural life, jazz musicians jamming, and urban people working at their trades. (He worked in a different medium and style, but his focus was quite similar to that of Jacob Lawrence, a friend and artistic colleague. For me, the two also have a similar impact.) Of the Blues (1973) is not only a wonderful evocation of a Harlem nightlife scene, but a visual rendering of another form of art from a different medium and The Dressmaker (1983), as Smith notes, is a terrific variation on the artist-and-model theme as the seamstress helps her naked customer dress. One of the most charming pieces, a tall, slim work, is La Femme Martinique (1970). Done on Masonite and illustrating one of Bearden’s frequent subjects, Caribbean life, the collage portrays a woman on her way to market posed in an almost queenly posture. (Bearden’s field of interest was more than the African-American experience, he depicted scenes from the entire black world.) In another vein, he also illustrated the fall of Troy with black soldiers. Some of the collages are rendered in bright colors, like the Matisse cut-outs the informational material said had influenced Bearden. Others have clearly been distressed (with sandpaper, according to Smith) so that they resemble the ancient frescoes of Italy which the artist loved. In each one, however, the selection of materials is inspiring. The patterned dress fabric of Femme Martinique, for instance, is created by the photograph of a paisley print from some publication; the vegetables in her basket are another photo, this one in color, while the basket itself was simply painted by Bearden.
Bearden had an eclectic background, encouraged and essentially ordained by his highly intellectual parents. His education alone was—shall we say multifaceted. He ended with a BS in Education from NYU, but his route there was peripatetic. He served as a New York City social worker until 1969, even as he was studying and making art. He wrote journalism and essays, drew cartoons, even composed songs—and associated with artists and prominent thinkers, both black and white, in many media. He served in a segregated unit in New York City during World War II and then used the GI Bill to fund a trip to Paris to study art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. While there, he met some of the most illustrious artists of the mid-20th century, along with writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Bearden didn’t devote himself wholly to making art until he was in his mid-40’s, in 1954. He experimented with several techniques, including reworking famous paintings using a Photostat machine. Bearden also began to explore color and eventually began making collages in the ‘60s. In this medium, he strove to “redefine the images of man in terms of the black experience.” Back when he was experimenting with the Photostat, he found that it provided two copies of an artwork: a positive and a negative. The negatives rendered the white images as black, likely an inspiration for the Fall of Troy with its black soldiers—and for Bearden’s artistic thrust in general. The Rosenfeld exhibit, however small in number of works, was a good display of Bearden’s scope and breadth.
Some weeks after visiting the Chelsea and Mid-town galleries in New York City, I made a week’s visit to Washington, D.C., principally to see the Gauguin exhibit at the National Gallery. It turns out, schedules being what they are, that I got to NGA near the end of my stay, and before going down to the Mall, my mother and I paid a short visit to the Katzen Art Center at American University on Friday, 27 May. Most of the gallery was in the process of getting new exhibits installed, but we went over expressly to see a site-specific installation, Sam Gilliam: Close to Trees, on view through 14 August. The artist conceived the work, made up of dozens of draped nylon and polypropylene cloths brightly dyed with acrylic colors, especially for the 8000 square feet of the gallery’s third floor. Gilliam has transformed the space into a forest of color which visitors move around and past the way we’d walk through a grove of trees, stopping here and there to admire one or simply to stand in its shade. (The artist says the title refers to the way you can “be so close one can reach out and touch” the work, like trees in a forest.) Like a small forest, too, Gilliam’s installation uses natural light to illuminate the acrylic rainbow. Gilliam and his installers tested the play of light in the gallery at different times of the day before deciding the final placement of the drapes, some of which hang from the ceiling and droop free like actual trees while others are mounted on walls and still others on the floor. Some draped pieces include mirrors on the floor beneath them to reflect the colors back up, and others also have scattered pieces of fabric and other material on the floor like huge leaves fallen from the trees. While the draped fabric looks much like the dyed works that Gilliam has done in other installations (including one I saw at the Museum of Folk Art in Manhattan several years ago when the artist gave a presentation of his work), the arrangement and display of these hangings is entirely different.
Like Bearden’s collages, Gilliam’s “trees” aren’t just paintings. They, too, take on additional dimensions because, first, the fabric has various textures which catch the light and absorb the paint in different ways. Second, the folds and creases of the draped material changes each “tree.” Finally, some of the trees, mostly the ones suspended from the ceiling, turn slightly under their own momentum. Since the light isn’t evened out by artificial illumination, the movement changes the way the colors, a lot of yellows, blues, and oranges, strike the eye. (Like another Washington Colorist, Morris Louis , Gilliam’s paintings often run off the edge of the canvas; even on stretched works, the color continues around the rim of the stretcher.) Like many of the artist’s works over the years, Close to Trees blurs the division between painting and sculpture. Gilliam, who was born in Mississippi in 1933, grew up in Louisville, and came to Washington in 1962, has also often worked with both texture and draping in some way or another. My mother has three Gilliams at home (the artist is a friend), and one of them is a free-form, frameless painting that is mounted directly on the wall and is made up of separate pieces of thickly painted canvas which Gilliam weaves together when he hangs it; it’s different every time its remounted. It was hung in my parents’ last apartment so that it actually turned a corner and went onto the next wall. In its present location, it climbs up the wall and spreads onto the ceiling. Another work, Flowers, of which my mother and I both have a version, is constructed of hand-made paper which Gilliam printed in abstract patterns, then cut into pieces. In a deep frame (a box, really), he reassembled the pieces into a three-dimensional assemblage of more abstractions. The frames (mine is essentially square, but Mother’s is trapezoidal) are decorated with chunks of flat stone which pierce the sides of the casing. Even in Flowers, which had an almost-conventional frame which the artist broke, Gilliam doesn’t confine himself to the picture frame. Close to Trees has elements of these in other ways: free-form, textured, and changing. The bright colors are another trademark of Gilliam’s work; he’s considered the second generation of the Washington Color School of which Ken Noland and Morris Louis were members of the first generation.
I’ve liked other Gilliam works and shows more than Close to Trees, including the large retrospective at the Corcoran in 2005. But walking through the Katzen installation is less a stimulating or revealing experience, like, say the Gauguin show at the NGA, than a pleasant stroll through a grove of really fascinating trees. Spend 45 minutes or so in Gilliam’s woods, stopping here and there, and you just feel a little happier. That, after all, is no mean achievement.
Finally, on Tuesday, 31 May, Mother and I took the bus down to the Mall to see Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the National Gallery of Art (which closed on 5 June). This show was one of the most informative and revealing I have seen in a long time, probably not since the Dada show at NGA and MoMA back in 2006. In the case of Dada, what I learned was mostly historical—how the art movement fit into the politics and events of the first decades of the 20th century—but at Gauguin, I learned a lot of startling stuff about the artist and his artistic philosophy, as it were. I don’t pretend to be well-educated in art history, and I didn’t know anything about Paul Gauguin except the general outline of his life and career. I’ve seen many of his paintings in other exhibits and collections over the years, and I like his work, but basically I associated him with Tahiti and the South Pacific and having spent some time in Arles with van Gogh. The first thing I learned is that far from being just a painter, which was all I knew before, Gauguin was an artistic polymath, engaging just about every medium and form, from pottery to sculpture. Painting remained his main métier, but he made drawings, prints, reliefs, and some wonderful wood blocks. (Pottery he’d studied in his early years, but making wood blocks was something he just decided to try on a whim.)
The title of the exhibit suggests another aspect of Gauguin’s life and work: he drew on and created myths in and for his art. Like many artists, many of Gauguin’s pieces depict or refer to figures out of mythology and legend, including the Bible (Eve, Jacob and the angel, Jesus, Satan) and Polynesia. But like Tennessee Williams, Gauguin also made up myths about his own life—he claimed to be descended from Incan ancestors, though there’s no evidence of such heritage—so much that it became hard to tell the truth from the fiction. (The artist’s Tahitian memoir, Noa Noa, like Williams’s Memoirs, is mostly fantasy. The New York Times’s Holland Cotter quipped: “If he published it today, Oprah would be demanding an apology.”) He also combined these impulses when he invented gods for the Tahitians that never existed in their pantheon and portrayed other deities in poses he borrowed from Hindu gods (depictions of which he’d seen in museums). Nearly his entire depiction of Polynesian life was drawn from his imagination and the way he thought earlier generations, before European colonization had changed everything, had lived. He borrowed liberally from images from Easter Island, Buddhist carvings, and the photographs and descriptions by earlier visitors like Charles Georges Spitz or Louis Antoine de Bougainville. “Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it,” Gauguin wrote a friend, as if to explain his impulse to create imaginary realities.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) led something of a peripatetic early life, including five years of his early childhood in Lima with a maternal uncle who had been the last Spanish viceroy of Peru, and later stints in the merchant marine and the navy. He settled down to a life as a stockbroker in 1872 and married in 1873, fathering five children. He painted on the side as an amateur, until 1886 when he left his family, now living in Copenhagen where his wife was born, and devoted himself full time to art. His main guiding belief was that society had become corrupted by civilization and he made a series of voyages farther and farther away from Paris, the center of Western culture and art at the time. He traveled first to Brittany in 1887, a rugged part of France on the northwest coast, where he painted his version of the native life of the Bretons. In his mind, the Breton peasants, whom he painted in the fields or at play as children, were closer to the unspoiled natural people he sought. “Here in Brittany,” he wrote, “the peasants have a medieval air about them and do not for a moment look as though they think that Paris exists and that it is 1889.” His paintings from Brittany, which included several landscapes and still lifes, are almost classic Impressionism, both is tone and style. The artist would return to Brittany in 1888 (as well as making a two-month stay with van Gogh in Arles), but the spell would eventually wear off, of course, and Gauguin would move farther from civilization in search of ever more untainted lands. He set sail for Panama in 1887 and spent five months in Martinique; the art that came out of that sojourn displayed his first step toward “primitivism.” Though the subject was the Afro-Caribbean life he saw there, the style was still as impressionistic as the work from Brittany. Two years later, in 1889, he sketched himself as an American Indian. He declared himself a “savage” and promoted his wanderings as his search for the untamed and uncorrupted. “To do something new,” the artist proclaimed, “you have to go back to the origins, to humanity in its infancy.”
Also in 1889, the Universal Exhibition opened in Paris with a focus on what was then known as primitive cultures in France’s colonial territories in Asia and the Pacific. Gauguin was enchanted and took off for the South Seas to “live as a savage,” landing in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, in 1891. Later that year, the artist moved further out to a small village. He began sending canvases back to Europe where their exoticism immediately attracted attention. What Gauguin depicted in his Tahitian art, however, was based more on his romantic notions than anything actual: Tahiti and its inhabitants had been thoroughly Frenchified and Christianized by the end of the 19th century, and the Edenic society which the artist had envisioned no longer existed, erased entirely by the Christian missionaries and European colonists. So he reinvented it—adding elements, including some deities, that had never been part of the culture to start with. J. R. R. Tolkien, who was just born about this time, invented a whole mythology in his books; Paul Gauguin did, too—in his art. The painting had begun to move away from classic Impressionism and even Post-impressionism to the brightly-colored—what Holland Cotter called “crushed-fruit colors”—imaginative depictions for which the artist is mostly recognized today. They were less about feelings and sensations, the stuff of Impressionism, than imagination and dreams. (There’s nothing in his Polynesian canvases or other works that looks like Surrealism, which wouldn’t hit the art scene until two decades after Gauguin’s death, but his subjects and his approach perhaps served as a bridge to the art style that focuses on dreams and the subconscious.) Further, unlike his Impressionist colleagues back home who painted ordinary people at their ordinary lives—farmers, peasants, fishermen, diners in a café, artists and dancers, people on a street—Gauguin filled his Tahitian art with images of supernatural beings, dreamers, symbolic creatures, romanticized landscapes, scenes assembled from far-flung elements, and imagined inhabitants. He painted in bold colors, flattened his images, distorted space and the spatial relationships of figures, creating unreal juxtapositions. Moreover, Gauguin had a stronger relationship with his subjects and his art than did the Impressionists, who insisted they were mere observers, not participants in the scenes they depicted. The Impressionists may have had an emotional response to the subjects they portrayed, but they weren’t part of them. Gauguin, however, was fully invested in the world he revealed—created—in French Polynesia.
Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893, weakened by illness (he was diagnosed with syphilis in 1895), but returned to Tahiti two years later. His art sold better, his friends and supporters pointed out, when he sent his exotic scenes back from the South Seas, the expatriate artist living in Paradise, than from a Paris studio. Despite his illness, Gauguin moved 850 miles to an even more remote island in the Marquesas in 1901, reinvigorating his art. In 1903, after a series of heart attacks almost certainly caused by the syphilis, Gauguin died and was buried in the Marquesas, never having returned to France after 1895.
The nearly 120 works in the NGA exhibit, originated by the Tate Modern in London, was divided into themes based on the type of myths Gauguin made: “Identity and Self-Mythology,” “Landscape and Rural Narrative,” “Sacred Themes,” “Allusive and Elusive Tales,” “Earthly Paradise,” and others. (Some works from Russia didn’t travel to Washington due to legal problems.) The dates and styles of the art included in each section were mixed, including not only various types of painting, but prints, woodcuts, carvings (Gauguin was a marvelous woodcarver, creating full sculptures, many totem-like posts, and both bas- and haut-reliefs), and ceramics. The near-mania Gauguin displayed for creating myths, about himself and his subjects, was almost so absorbing that the art itself nearly got lost. Let’s face it: Gauguin was a rotten guy in almost every respect except his art—he abandoned his family, bullied everyone he knew, stole other people’s ideas and images, lied about his history, fabricated the world he depicted in Tahiti, took teenaged girls as his lovers—but he was an absolutely fascinating character . . . at a 100-year remove.
Cotter characterized the work in the Maker of Myth as “dark.” “Bizarre, even just plain ugly images occur,” he wrote in his review. “The atmosphere is tense, claustrophobic, depressed.” I didn’t feel that way at all. Besides being revelatory, I found the art engrossing and almost haunting at times. I’ll cop to “dark” and “bizarre” (Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post contributed “troubling and contradictory,” which are apt), though not as negative qualities but as striking and surprising aspects of Gauguin’s work that I hadn’t known about before. (I’m sure Cotter is far more conversant with Gauguin’s art and life than I was, so he may not have approached the exhibit with the same naïveté that I had when I arrived.)
Another aspect of Gauguin of which I hadn’t been aware but which is amply displayed in the works in the exhibit is his sense of whimsy. The artist liked a good joke, sometimes on himself, sometimes on his friends and colleagues, and often on those whom he disrespected. Some of his whimsical work was little more than doodling. He carved himself a walking stick (Carved Cane, 1888-90) and while in Brittany, he wore the local wooden clogs—except Gauguin decorated his by carving little bas-relief designs on the toes. Gauguin did dozens of self-portraits, many with themes of one kind or another; in 1889, for instance, he painted himself so as to evoke Lucifer, the fallen angel, against a bright (sulfur?) yellow background with a halo over his head, two apples hanging on a branch behind him, and a small snake in his right hand. His whimsy could also be macabre: he depicted himself with reference to John the Baptist in Self Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head (1889). The artist’s likeness, glazed in olive green, has its eyes closed and a gaping hole in the top of its head for the vase’s opening (it’s really a mug, with a handle); the severed neck is glazed in dripping red as if freshly cut. Gauguin’s Portrait of Meijer de Haan by Lamplight (1889) portrays his friend the Dutch artist, who was Jewish, with horn-like tufts of red hair and his hand as a cloven hoof, clearly suggesting Satan.
Gauguin liked to tweak his political adversaries, especially the Catholic Church. (The artist was born Catholic and was buried in the Catholic cemetery on Hiva-Oa.) In one of his most provocative gestures, he trimmed the entrance to his residence in the Marquesas with carved wooden panels labeling the house as the “Maison du Jouir,” or “House of Pleasure.” Gauguin’s neighbor was the Catholic bishop, and it pleased Gauguin to know that every time the priest entered the house, he passed under that sign. (In French, jouir has the connotation of ‘sexual pleasure,’ even ‘orgasm,’ not just ‘fun.’)
Organizing the show around the several stories Gauguin told in and with his art, curators Belinda Thomson, an independent British art historian, and Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the NGA, started with works that showed how the artist invented himself (“Identity and Self-Mythology”), including the self-portraits I just mentioned starting with an 1876 painting, the earliest self-portrait in the collection and one that has only recently been identified as Gauguin’s work. In his late 20’s, the image is a young man, perhaps a student (he’s wearing a sort of pillbox hat that might have been a student cap), portrayed nearly realistically with just a touch of Impressionism. The last portrait was Self Portrait with Glasses from 1903, the year the artist died, and shows an older man with a fuller face, nut-brown from the sun, with short, graying hair, wearing oval-lensed, wire-rimmed glasses. One interesting painting in this section was Self Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890): it shows a stern-faced Gauguin in dark sweater and shirt standing in front of his own 1889 painting The Yellow Christ (on display in the “Sacred Themes” section); on a shelf above the painter’s left shoulder we see his Self Portrait in Form of Grotesque Head (1889), a ceramic sculpture of the artist that I can only describe as expressionistic in its monstrousness. In contrast with the portrait as the Devil, as if to demonstrate his dichotomous nature, the 1889 Christ in the Garden of Olives is actually a self-portrait of the artist as a disheartened Jesus in a bleak landscape, depicted here with red hair and beard (like van Gogh?) but with Gauguin’s unmistakable hooked nose.
In “Sacred Themes,” Thomson and Morton placed many of the Tahitian works that depict the deities and religious beliefs, real and imagined, of the islanders as well as the Judeo-Christian images from the Western Bible. The Yellow Christ was in this section and here also was the fascinating Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888) which juxtaposes a Bible scene with everyday Breton life. In a letter to van Gogh, Gauguin himself described this painting:
I have just painted a religious picture, very clumsily; but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don't want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes a very intense black. The bonnets a very luminous yellowy-white. The two bonnets to the right are like monstrous helmets. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with greenish yellow chinks of sunlight. The ground (pure vermillion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red. The angel is dressed in violent ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel's wings pure chrome yellow. The angel's hair chrome and the feet flesh orange. I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing is very severe . . . .
Also in “Sacred Themes” are several carved wood “tikis” that Gauguin used to depict the Tahitian gods, mostly Hina, the moon goddess, and Te Fatu, the earth spirit. There were no images of Tahitian deities by the time Gauguin arrived so his representations were based on his imagination and the depictions of the sacred figures of other cultures, such as Hindu and Easter Island. The little posts, Hina and Fatu and Hina with Two Attendants (both ca. 1892), mid-reliefs carved of native wood, are about a foot tall and look an awful lot like something you might find in a Pacific island souvenir shop today (except maybe better made). One very interesting piece in the same section was an 1899 oil painting, The Last Supper. Gauguin used elements of other cultures, such as Maori carvings (which he’d seen and sketched in an Auckland museum on a stop-over on a return from Europe), to create his image of the New Testament subject. Though raised a Catholic, Gauguin had spent many years reading and studying about the world’s faiths and he viewed religion syncretically.
In “Fictions of Femininity,” the curators assembled works that depict Gauguin’s various visions of women, including a number of renderings of Eve (among them several Polynesian Eves) and Oviri, a fictional goddess whose name is derived from the Tahitian word for ‘savage.’ This collection included Merahi Metua no Tehamana (Les Aïeux de Tehamana/The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has Many Parents) (1893) in which Gauguin shows his young mistress with flowers woven into her hair, wearing a prim, blue-and-white striped Western dress, and holding a fan. Behind Tehamana is a wall painted with figures of gods below a panel of strange inscriptions. The background design has nothing to do with Tahiti: the gods are displayed in Indian poses and the writing is borrowed from Easter Island. In the section “Allusive and Elusive Titles” is Te Rerioa (The Dream) (1897) in which two women sit on the floor of a frescoed room, a baby in a crib in the left foreground, a dog to the left of the seated figures, and outside the open door is man on horseback. Gauguin wrote of this painting: “Everything is dreamlike in this canvas; is it the mother, is it the horseman on the path? Or is it the painter’s dream!” There are several other depictions of dreaming and dreamers, including paintings of Gauguin’s little son Clovis (Clovis Asleep, 1884, and The Little One Is Dreaming, 1881), illustrating how significant dreams and dreaming were to the artist’s work. The almost iconic Two Tahitian Women (1899)—so recognizable, Philip Kennicott suggested, that “you wonder whether it’s from the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Herman Melville”—depicting one bare-breasted woman and another with a blue cloth covering one breast, is in “Earthly Paradise” (and was the target of an incident, recounted below). In contrast to the platter of bright red flowers one woman holds, the surrounding woods is dark and ominous, lit only by a triangle of yellow sky. Is this Gauguin’s commentary on the Eden he expected to find from the accounts of Frenchmen who sent back reports over the previous century but which had turned out to be so long disappeared that the artist had to reinvent it largely from his own imagination?
There were, frankly, too many sections in Maker of Myth for me even to name each of them and too many interesting and wonderful works for me to discuss even a small percentage. The best I could do here is provide a taste of this really magnificent and revelatory exhibit and hope that you get the idea from the tip of the iceberg how deep and broad it was, even in its limited scope.
(A sidelight to the exhibit occurred on 1 April when a 53-year-old woman, Susan Burns, attacked Two Tahitian Women, trying to tear it from the wall. “I feel that Gauguin is evil,” Burns told an investigator later. “He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual.” She said the painting should be burned. Burns, from nearby Arlington, Virginia, also said, however, “I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you”—which kind of undercut her protest. The painting was unharmed and remained on display.)
Since two of these venues are commercial galleries, though one has locations around the country and the world, and one was a site-specific installation, it’s probably not likely the shows will travel like some museum exhibits might. (Even the last, the Gauguin, isn’t scheduled to go on from Washington.) Still, you never know for certain—I mentioned that back in 1961, the Gres Gallery show Fifteen Polish Painters was taken in its entirely by MoMA and displayed in New York even though Gres was a selling gallery. Stuff does happen.