Gauguin Artist as Alchemist at the AIC: If you think you know Gauguin think again

Gauguin Artist as Alchemist at the AIC: If you think you know Gauguin think again
Paul Gauguin. Mahana no atua (Day of the God), 1894. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

“It’s precisely an endless kind of art that I’m interested in, rich in all sorts of techniques, suitable for translating all the emotions of nature and humanity.” —Paul Gauguin, 1903

If when you think of Paul Gaugiun, you think of paintings of bare-breasted native women in idyllic Tahitian settings (like the painting above) you wouldn’t be wrong.

But as you will discover in the more than 240 pieces featured in Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist, at the AIC–the largest ever public presentation of Gauguin’s ceramics and groupings of objects–reunited for the first time since leaving his studio–there’s a lot more to the man and his art.

The exhibition creates a multimedia potpourri of the artist’s creations calling Gauguin an alchemist for his ability to convert one element into another by taking raw materials and transforming them into something new.

Born in Paris, Gauguin then lived in Peru from ages three through nine. He traveled and changed residences extensively throughout his life–and was influenced and inspired by the different locales. gauguin5-1

Paul Gauguin styled himself and his art as “savage.” When in actuality, his work ranged from purposely savage to quite refined.

Bust of his first son, Jean Gauguin, 1881

Bust of his first son, Jean Gauguin, 1881

Not surprisingly, Gauguin, born, June 7, 1848, was a Gemini–the astrological sign of the twins–which explains his dual personality–part wolfish wild man and part a sensitive martyr for art as well as a visionary–who helped pave the way for the likes of artists including Picasso and Matisse.

The exhibition, curated by Gloria Groom, chair of European Painting and Sculpture and David and Mary Winton Green reflects this duality. Looking at some of his 3-D works like the bust of his son Emil versus some of his wood carvings of grotesque heads which the artist referred to as his “monstrosities,” it is hard to believe that they were done by the same man.gauguin4-1

The exhibition covers Gauguin’s early life from stockbroker to Merchant Marine before his beginnings as an artist with the Impressionists in Paris in the early 188o’s.

The installation, which combines Gauguin ceramics, wood carvings, totems, wooden shoes, a cabinet with appliques, a carved wine cask, etchings from around the door of his island home, 3-D objects and more side by side, allows viewers to get to know the man as well as the artist.

Searching for a paradise…

Paul Gauguin. Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890–91. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Paul Gauguin. Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890–91. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Gauguin’s Volpini exhibition of paintings held at the Café des Arts on the Champ de Mars in 1889 was a commercial failure–driving a dejected Gauguin to paint a series of self-portraits relating himself to Jesus Christ and eventually lead to his desire to move to an exotic locale.

In 1891, he set sail for Tahiti where he looked forward to creating pure, “primitive” art.

Upon arriving in Tahiti, Gauguin was disappointed that the primitive culture he was hoping to find, had been transformed by colonization. So he used his artistic imagination to create works that are not historically accurate but instead what he had hoped to see.

While in Tahiti, Gauguin produced some of his most beautiful and memorable paintings along with his fictionalized travel journal, “Noa Noa.” The Chicago exhibition is fortunate to have this rarely on view—original work consisting of text intermingled with casual artworks, borrowed from the Louvre. Make sure not to miss it.

Gauguin continued his work in Tahiti with stints to Paris and other locales leaving Tahiti for good in 1901 to settle in the French Marquesas on the Isle of Hiva Oa.

He died May 8, 1903.

The Exhibition: Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist

When: now through September 10, 2017

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $7, plus general admission ticket or $15 on free Thursday evenings for Illinois residents; free for all children younger than 14, and Chicago teens younger than 18 and members

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