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Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Follow-up)

These are some afterthoughts about 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; be aware that the museum has forecast attendance at over 300,000 people. (My observations on a visit to the show in Paris on October 13 are here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

There are a few more works in this show that I did not list before, including one painting in the sixth room of the exhibit, the Self-Portrait (1893-1894, Musée d'Orsay) in which an inverted image of Spirit of the Dead Watching is hanging on the wall behind him. There are also a number of sculptures that represent Gauguin's sincere if perhaps naive attempt to recover, save, or recreate the culture and religion of his adopted home, most of which you can see in the article Gauguin and Tahiti by Philippe Peltier in the most recent issue of Art Tribal (along with images of many of the Tahitian and Marquesan artifacts in the show):

• Tehura (Tahitian head of wood, 1891-1893, Musée d'Orsay)
• Tua (Idol made of wood, fish teeth, mother-of-pearl, 1892, Musée d'Orsay); the female version of this idol, in a private collection in Toulouse, is not in the show
• Tamanu (Idol with pearl, 1892, Musée d'Orsay)
• Oviri (ceramic sculpture, 1894, Musée d'Orsay); a version in bronze is in a private collection and is not in the show; the body type presented in this work and others like it had an influence on Picasso (see La toilette from 1906)
• Saint Orang (wood sculpture, 1902-1903, Musée d'Orsay)

Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Les Misérables), 1888, Van Gogh Museum, AmsterdamTo try to encapsulate my various reactions to the show, I go back to what Gauguin wrote to the government minister (quoted in Part 1 of these posts) about his plans for a trip to Tahiti, "whose character and light I aim to capture." Seeing so much of the Tahiti period works in one place shows how Gauguin proceeded in that plan and how he succeeded. (For a dissenting view to this idea of success, see an article by Keith Morrison, Perspectives on the Art of Gauguin: For Nonwhites, It's Racist Propaganda, published in The Washington Post in 1988.) On one level, Gauguin's Tahiti works are intensely self-absorbed and may express more about his own fantasies, sexual (for example, Aita Tamari vahina Judith te Parari, or Annah the Javanese, from 1893 and now in a private collection) and otherwise, about the identity the artist created for himself there. On another level, seeing the paintings and especially the sculptures side by side with actual Tahitian artifacts and Gauguin's notebooks and engravings made clear in my mind how sincere he was in his devotion to the islands' culture, at a time when even its native residents believed it was lost.

I would have liked to see more of the self-portraits in the show, but there is such a surfeit of important paintings that it seems ridiculous to complain of a lacuna. Still, the self-portraits could have been placed strategically throughout the show, to represent the intense self-inspection Gauguin was making alongside that of his exterior. Self-portraits from the Tahiti and Marquises periods, not in the exhibit, include:

Self-Portrait (1890s, Puskin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Self-Portrait with Idol (c. 1893, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas)
Self-Portrait with Palette (c. 1894, private collection)
Self-Portrait (1896, Museo de Arte, São Paolo, Brazil)
Self-Portrait (1896, Musée d'Orsay)

I also really like the humorous Self-Portrait (1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which although it predates his first stay in Tahiti is from the same year as the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ which begins the exhibit. The most beautiful of the self-portraits is that shown above to the right, Self-portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Les Misérables) (1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). For many more images of Gauguin's works, not necessarily in the exhibit, see this Gauguin Expo and collection of Gauguin images from Olga's Gallery and Orazio Centaro's Art Images on the Web.

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