Gauguin at the Seattle Art Museum, 2012

Gauguin at the Seattle Art Museum, 2012

by Ingrid M. Reeve

Arearea no varua ino (Reclining Tahitian Women), 1894 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark Oil on canvas 23 5/8 x 38 9/16in. (60 x 98cm)

A painting is a painting is a painting. Paul Gauguin’s paintings recently on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum seem to exist for the purpose of reminding one of the aforementioned fact. Gauguin reminds one that a painting is a painting through his use of imagery and color; his paintings are neither mimetic tributes to nature nor idealizations of life. They are not abstract, and yet they echo an abstract language of color theories that manifested decades later in the art scene. His color usage, which is often criticized as relying on an under-informed use of local color, performs the insurmountable task of reminding viewers that our eyes are enjoying a flat, man-made surface.

The Bathers 1897 Oil on canvas Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903 23 3/4 x 36 3/4 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951

His imagery, which includes landscape but centers around the figure, isn’t about life, but is alive itself- alive with the sound of music, just kidding- alive with pattern and color choices that never die, like a Rothko or a Hans Hoffman. The Bathers, for example, breaks away from compositional rules and conventional color usage with a tree near the center and a river that turns in t0 sky, creating, simultaneously, an awkward stillness and a never ending vibration between two sides of a painting. Tahitian Woman with Flower moves toward a true language of abstraction that arrived years after Gauguin’s death: the “push and pull” of colors. Many of the 50 works on display reveal Gauguin’s conscious use of color as a tool to flatten and deepen space.

Vahine no te Tiare (Tahitian Woman with a Flower), 1891 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark Oil on canvas 27 3/4 x 18 5/16in. (70.5 x 46.5cm)

The show, Gauguin Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, was only exhibited in Seattle (Feb 9- April 29) and in Copenhagen, so if you missed it, make your way over to the permanent collection of another museum to spend some time in front of Gauguin’s work. The upside is that there probably won’t be a crowd around Gauguin’s work like the crowds at Gauguin Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise in the Seattle Art Museum; the downside is that it was a wonderful and rare opportunity to see a large collection of Gauguin paintings side by side accompanied by Polynesian sculpture and a few of Gauguin’s sketchbooks.

Faaturuma (Melancholic) 1891 Oil on canvas Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903 37 x 26 7.8 in. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust