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18.10.03

Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 2 of 3)

This is the continuation of my observations on 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.

In the third and fourth rooms of the exhibit are many of the paintings from Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti (1891-1893):

Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Vahine note tiare (Woman with flower, 1891, Ny Carlsberg-Glypotek, Copenhagen)
Femmes de Tahiti (Sur la plage, 1891, Musée d'Orsay)
Le Repas (Les bananes, 1891, Musée d'Orsay)
Arearea (Joyeusetés I, 1892, Musée d'Orsay)
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Ancestors of Tehamana, 1893, Art Institute of Chicago)
Hina te fatou (Moon and Earth, 1893, Museum of Modern Art)
Parahi te marae (There is the Temple, 1892, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Matamua (Autrefois, 1892, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
Parau na te varua ino (Words of the Devil, 1892, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Va hine note vi (Woman with Mango, 1892, Baltimore Museum of Art)
Aha oe feii? (What? You're Jealous?, 1892, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks, 1892, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Pastorales tahitiennes (1893, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

Paul Gauguin, Te nave nave fenua (Terre délicieuse), 1892, Ohara Museum of Art, Karashaki, JapanThere is also a set of photographs that Gauguin may have used as models for his paintings, with comparison to reproductions of the works. Another photograph of the reliefs from the Buddhist temple of Borobodur, which inspired the composition of Ia Orana Maria (see above), hangs next to that painting. Gauguin's Fan with Motifs of Ta matete (from a private collection, 1892) shows the use of the Egyptian mixed profile in his treatment of Tahitian figures, and it hangs next to a reproduction of a piece of Egyptian relief that may have inspired Gauguin. The Tahua Tablet, a piece of wood from Easter Island covered with writing and symbols, is next to the photograph of the Tahua Tablet that Gauguin owned. Tahitian ear ornaments are in a case across from a gourd cup carved by Gauguin with tiki images and Tahitian symbols. A cane, a dish, and some cylindrical sculptures of carved wood, all made by Gauguin in a Tahitian style, are shown together.

The effect of seeing so many of the Tahiti paintings and carvings, which have not been shown together in a long time, along with the Tahitian artifacts is remarkable. The show was put together to honor the 100th anniversary of Gauguin's death, and we are told that it took four years to put together, to receive permission to bring works of art from many continents into one show. Is Gauguin worth all of this? I don't think you can stand in front of even just one of the paintings in these rooms for a short time without feeling that it is. The Gauguin Tahiti paintings represents incarnate one of the last moments of innocent European exoticisme; he truly believed that a culture that was so different from his own had to be perfectly pure and real, even though he found in reality a culture that had already been nearly destroyed by visitors like himself. The colors, when you see the paintings in person, are often startling but ultimately beautiful and pleasing to the eye. How, working with oil paint, did he achieve a texture that is like pastel or crayon at times? I think that the evocation and intermingling of so many different myths (Christian, Oceanic, Buddhist, Egyptian) gives Gauguin's work a universal quality, even if it is Eurocentric. What does the flying lizard with red wings signify in Te nave nave fenua (Delicious Land, 1892, Ohara Museum of Art, image shown at left)? What about the hand gestures of Gauguin's Tahitian figures, or the flute-playing girls who seem to fill several of the paintings with the sounds of Tahitian music? Gauguin makes me think about these things.

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