New York receives bouquet of Gauguin

Art review: New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is featuring "Gauguin in New York Collections: The Lure of the Exotic" through Oct. 20.

July 21, 2002|By Holland Cotter | Holland Cotter,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) liked attention. He wore funny clothes, said shocking things, painted gorgeous pictures and traveled halfway around the world to get it. His efforts paid off. When he died of syphilis at 54 on an island in the South Pacific, people around the world took notice, and they have been noticing him ever since.

So it's surprising to learn that "Gauguin in New York Collections: The Lure of the Exotic," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the first major New York-area exhibition devoted to him in more than 40 years. In fact, the show is not major-major, not by blockbuster standards. More than half of the 120 pieces installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Lehmann Wing are works on paper: drawings, many prints, a few letters. And the final product is neither a full-fledged survey nor a focused theme show.

Instead, it's a little of both. In scattershot fashion, it spans Gauguin's career, starting with a marble bust of his son, Emil, that he carved in 1877, and ending with a frantic, strung-out letter recounting a run-in with island authorities, written a month before his death. In between, along with ceramics, wood sculptures and a remarkable drawing portfolio recently acquired by the Met, are two dozen paintings, half of them among the most beautiful created by any modern artist.

About the artist

As to theme, the show is nominally about how all these objects found their way into public and private hands in New York state, but the true subject is the artist himself.

Like any monomaniac, Gauguin was in the Gauguin business, aggressively, competitively, full time. This was so when he was an aspiring bourgeois stockbroker in Paris in the 1870s, when he become a professional rebel painter in the 1880s and when, years later, he labored to orchestrate his European reputation from several oceans away.

It was a demanding job. It entailed not only creating art of extraordinary quality, but also inventing a persona with which to promote it. This entrepreneurial public role did not require that he be a nice guy, and he was not.

He declared himself a "savage" by birth because, he said, he had South American Indian blood. (He was one-eighth Peruvian.) And he dressed the part. He grew his hair long, wore swashbuckling cloaks, saucy hats and an expression - you see it in the self-portraits - of sly, intimidating disdain.

With people who had power in his life he was alternately seductive and bullying, sometimes violent. He could charm prospective dealers, but Emil carried a lifelong memory of his father hitting his mother and bloodying her face.

Gauguin espoused social justice and to some extent practiced it. But he also endlessly manipulated people - his family, his Polynesian lovers, his fellow artists - including the besotted van Gogh - to his own ends, chief among them to create art and gain fame.

Life and art

Gauguin's work is so thoroughly a vehicle for self-mythologizing that it is almost impossible not to take his life and his art as a piece, which raises complex questions about both.

The Met exhibition, with its somewhat unorthodox form, encourages questions and speculations. As organized by Colta Ives, curator in the museum's department of drawings and prints, and Susan Alyson Stein, associate curator of European paintings, it is not a monumental portrait of a career. It's more like an open notebook, an edited archive, a history in pieces. Chronologically ordered, it mixes masterpieces with memorabilia; it reveals the mechanics of an art and an intellect under construction.

Gauguin developed fast. The still-learning, largely self-taught painter of a Cezannesque still life in 1883 was, half a dozen years later, a highly individualistic artist. By then, he had claimed art as his destiny, separated from his family and begun to immerse himself in exotic environments, with a brief trip to the Caribbean and extended stays in the quaint village of Pont-Aven in Brittany, France.

He painted quite a bit in Pont-Aven. He was, it seems, fascinated by the religiosity of the peasant people and the traces of a pre-modern way of life, visually embodied in the medieval attire of local peasant women. He turned out some of his most innovative early paintings there, including The Yellow Christ (1889), which is in the Met show.

It's a puzzling, provoking picture. It presents Jesus nailed to the cross with three Breton woman in starched bonnets kneeling below. Despite the somber theme, the palette is bright: mustard gold with little red trees. The body of Christ is based on a carved 17th-century figure that hung in a chapel near Pont-Aven, but the face suggests a Gauguin self-portrait. And indeed, he would openly depict himself as Christ in later work.

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