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17.10.03

Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 1 of 3)

In my post on September 24 (The Marquesas), I mentioned the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004. On my trip to Paris, I had only one more morning to see the show. If you are going to Paris and you want to see this exhibit, do not do what I did and wait until the last moment to think about going to see it. It is extremely crowded: in the mornings, you can only get in if you have a reservation paid in advance, and the lines in the afternoon, when you don't need a reservation, are very long. I managed to get into the show on the morning of October 13 by using a press pass, and it was well worth the headache.

Gauguin's fascination with Tahiti and the role of the place in his later paintings are one of those things that are just assumed. I did not spend much time thinking about this whole concept beyond explaining it to students once a year and showing a few slides. This exhibit brings together an incredible number of paintings, sketches, and engravings, as well as photographs and actual artifacts from the islands where Gauguin stayed, to try to answer the question, "So what about Gauguin and Tahiti?" I don't know if this show will draw the crowds that the Impressionists or Van Gogh attract, but the crowds in the Grand Palais seem to indicate that it can. There were so many people, even in the hours restricted to reservations, that you literally had to work your way through a line of sorts to stand in front of almost every painting. (The French don't really understand the very orderly, Anglo-Saxon concept of "forming a line": in France, pretty much every situation where we would naturally form into a line in the United States becomes a shoving match where the person with the most pronounced sense of "culot" (assertiveness, pushiness) and the sharpest elbows will work his way to the front.)

The little guide to the exhibit that I purchased upon entering is Issue No. 357 (3 octobre 2003-19 janvier 2004) of Le Petit Journal des grandes expositions. On its cover is a quotation from the letter Paul Gauguin wrote to the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in 1891, asking the Minister for help:

Dear Sir,
I desire to go to Tahiti to pursue there a series of paintings on the country, whose character and light I aim to capture. I have the honor of asking you thus to agree, as was done for Mr. Dumoulin, to entrust me with a government mission which, at no cost to you, would nevertheless facilitate my studies and travel by the advantages it would bring. Please accept the assurance of my high regards,
Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890-1891In the exhibit's first small room, there is only one painting, the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890-1891, recently acquired by the Musée d'Orsay, image shown at right). In this painting, Gauguin is seated in front of his own painting, Yellow Christ (1889, Albright-Knox Art Gallery), made in remembrance of a crucifix he saw during one of his stays in Brittany and which we see over his right shoulder. Over his left shoulder on a table we also see the Pot en forme d'une tête grotesque (Musée d'Orsay), a piece of glazed earthenware made by Gauguin around the same time. This self-portrait was completed around the time that Gauguin made his first trip to Tahiti, where he arrived on June 9, 1891, and decided to live in a small village south of Papeete. The other image of the painter at the start of the show is a photograph of Gauguin in a Breton suit (from a private collection, 1891). The languorous expression in both of these images, Gauguin with his long face and moustache, is the same one that stares out at us from most of his self-portraits. It's hard not to read his expression as a smirk. The first room also contains two wood panels by Gauguin, Soyez mystérieuses (1890, Musée d'Orsay) and Soyez amoreuses, vous serez heureuses (1889, Boston Museum of Fine Arts). These later became part of Gauguin's decoration for his home in the Marquesas, although there is no mention of it in the exhibit until later.

The second room is dedicated to an understanding of Maori art from New Zealand and Oceania as Gauguin may have understood it, even before he left France for Tahiti. As the Petit Journal puts it, "When Gauguin arrived in Papeete in June 1891, almost all remains of the ancient civilization had been wiped out. He encountered a society in transformation in which he was the only one, it seemed, to care about the island's past." Most of the artifacts displayed here are from the 19th century and are now in the collections of the Musée de l'Homme and other ethnological museums: two small wooden figures (Moai Kavakava) from Easter Island; five stone tikis with large eyes and distorted, stylized mouths; two hunting spears (tupaves) and a shield. There are also 18 photographs of Tahitian and Marquesan people and scenes, including one of a traditional Tahitian chorus (himene) from 1896 and two photographs of Atuona, where Gauguin settled in 1901 and where he died in 1903.

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