Paul Gauguin. Vase in the Form of Leda and the Swan (detail), 1887–1888. Private collection.

Revealing the Artist’s Hand: Gauguin at the AIC

Though known to many as a post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) was in fact an accomplished sculptor, ceramist, printmaker and decorator. A new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) aims to celebrate these varied talents, revealing Gauguin’s identity as an artist-artisan, well versed in forging innovative new methods.  “It’s precisely an endless kind of art that I’m interested in,” Gauguin explained in 1903, “rich in all sorts of techniques, suitable for translating all the emotions of nature and humanity.”


Paul Gauguin. Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890–91. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, acquired by the national museums with the participation of Philippe Meyer and a Japanese sponsorship coordinated by the newspaper Nikkei, 1994.


Born in Paris in 1848, Gauguin served as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine as well as in the French Navy before finding success as a stockbroker and businessman. When the Paris stock market crashed in 1882, Gauguin, then in his thirties, pursued art full-time. Spending his subsequent years in Hiva Ova, Tahiti, Brittany and Martinique, Gauguin produced countless works on various subjects, embracing colour, nature, and an interest in physical form. Inspired by his tropical surroundings, Gauguin embarked on a creative period of new and highly original works.


Paul Gauguin. Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana), 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Deering McCormick.


“Gauguin was a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional artist, and what we know him for is really just one small fraction of his output,” said Allison Perelman, Research Associate of European Painting and Sculpture at the AIC, in an interview with the Gallery’s Magazine. “This exhibition delves deep into his material process, and explores how his experimentation in one media drove his progress in others.”

The exhibition at the AIC — Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist — seeks to reveal this artistic innovation in the presentation of 240 works, including furniture, sculpture, paintings, drawings, prints and works on paper. The exhibition also brings together the largest-ever presentation of Gauguin’s ceramics, sixty of which survive, with twenty-eight on view. “Visitors won’t just see his ceramics in person, but will catch glimpses of them in still life paintings, where Gauguin has placed them as part of the mise-en-scène,” says Perelman.


Paul Gauguin. Vase in the Form of Leda and the Swan, 1887–1888. Private collection.


Included in the exhibition is a polychromed oak sculpture on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Portrait of Meijer de Haan (c.1889–1890) depicts Gauguin’s friend and pupil, Dutch artist Meijer de Haan. Gauguin met de Haan in Paris through art dealer Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. De Haan accompanied Gauguin to Le Pouldu on the coast of Brittany, where the artists worked together on a decorative scheme for a dining room at a local inn, producing a handful of portraits in different mediums along the way.

“This striking, larger-than-life bust is a tremendous example of Gauguin’s sculptural work, and speaks to his fascination with the medium’s ability to reveal the artist’s hand,” says Kirsten Appleyard, Curatorial Assistant and Provenance Researcher in European and American Art at the NGC. “The object retains the elemental power and roughness of wood, highlighting Gauguin’s quest toward more primitive modes of expression.”


Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Meijer de Haan, c. 1889 1890. polychromed oak, 58.4 x 29.8 x 22.8 cm. Purchased 1968. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


The bust depicts Meijer de Haan with a hand on his chin in a contemplative state, which Appleyard says, “was in keeping with the Jewish painter’s interest in music, literature and philosophy.” Atop his head sits a bird, which can be seen both as a reference to the name Haan (Dutch for rooster), as well as the French word for hen (poule, meaning mistress) — a nod perhaps to Meijer de Haan’s lover, Marie Henry, who was the owner of the inn. “Gauguin delighted in layering his symbols,” says Appleyard. Meijer de Haan’s eyes are also partially closed, referencing the inner eye and the value of creating art from memory and imagination as opposed to relying solely on the observation of nature.


Paul Gauguin, with Émile Bernard. Earthly Paradise, 1888. The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior gift of Henry Morgen, Ann G. Morgen, Meyer Wasser, and Ruth G. Wasser; restricted gift of Edward M. Blair.


Another wooden work of interest is a cabinet intricately carved by Gauguin and French post-impressionist painter and writer Émile Henri Bernard. “The AIC acquired this wooden cabinet about eight years ago, and it will make its American debut in this exhibition,” says Perelman. The cabinet contains five different panels depicting different Martinique and Brittany figures.

Throughout his life, Gauguin nurtured an on-going interest in creating new and original work. “The exhibition shows that Gauguin was a ceaseless inventor, who was extremely driven,” says Perelman. His desire to constantly push creative boundaries, as well as his ability to work in a variety of mediums, is evident in this new exhibition.

Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until September 10, 2017. Following its debut, it will travel to the Grand Palais in Paris. Two of Gauguin's works are currently on view in the European and American Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada.

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