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The exhibit Gauguin would have killed to see

Art specialist Richard Brettell explains the significance of SAM's new Gauguin exhibit, Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise.

Oval bowl on small feet (kumete), ca. 1865

Oval bowl on small feet (kumete), ca. 1865 Wero Taroi of Ngati Tarawhai for Gilbert Meir

Paul Gauguin's The Bathers, 1897.

Paul Gauguin's The Bathers, 1897. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951

"Gauguin would have killed to see this exhibition," exclaimed Richard Brettell, an authority on 19th- and early 20th-century French painting, during the opening week of the Seattle Art Museum's splashy new Gauguin show, Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise.

Brettell, who holds the Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair in Art and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas, Dallas, explained that the art from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands that is juxtaposed against Gauguin's paintings at SAM had already been carted off by perspicacious Europeans by the time Gauguin arrived there.

A lot had changed since Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville claimed Tahiti for France in 1767. Missionaries had already burned heaps of wooden sculpture. Traditional hierarchies had been replaced by French colonial government. Women were already wearing the drab missionary dresses in which Gauguin painted many of his early subjects, including his 13-year-old mistress.

"When he arrived in Tahiti and when he arrived in the Marquesas, there was nothing," Brettell said. "Everything was in his view lost . . . he had to kind of fabricate a world that he knew had been fabulous." If the painter had been able to see all this art produced by the old culture, Bretell explained, "it would have changed his life."

The bare shoulders and bright colors of Gauguin's "Reclining Tahitian Women," the naked bodies of "The Bathers," the glowing, simplified tropical landscapes, even Gauguin's more detailed earlier images of Tahiti and Brittany seem a long way from, say, Albert Bierstadt's dramatic if fanciful painting of Puget Sound or his idyllic view of Yosemite. Still this exhibition has important parallels to Beauty and Bounty, last summer's SAM show of 19th- and early-20th-century American landscape painting and photography.

In both cases, the artist set out to capture an earthly paradise that they knew — or soon learned — was going, going, gone. In America, that sense of loss — or impending loss — and some of those 19th-century images helped inspire the creation of early national parks and the setting aside of what eventually became the national forests.

In Gauguin's case, it inspired the downcast, guarded looks of the women in his earlier Tahitian paintings, and the later fantasies of naked innocence. (Brettell agreed that there was "absolutely" a parallel to the experience of North American artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Personally, he said, "I went through thinking of Emily Carr," the British Columbian artist who painted First Nations people and art, as well as Canadian landscapes, in the early 20th century.)

Brettell has seen the Gauguin exhibition both here and in Copenhagen — its only two stops. Here, he says, the Polynesian artifacts are "much more beautiful and much more revelatory" than they were at Copenhagen's Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. There, they were "shown like ethnographic objects, rather than like works of art." In Seattle, "both parts [of the exhibition, the arts of Polynesia and of Gauguin] are shown with equal respect."

The Polynesian sculpture and other art objects give a sense of the culture whose remnants Gauguin found, and amplify our impression of the somewhat simplistic world he painted. The Polynesian objects go well beyond the dense, rooted forms of the better-known tiki figures, which are also represented here. There are lovely, simple polished wood bowls. There are head ornaments made from contrasting black and white shells. There is a long, elaborately carved Marquesas war club that preceded the European colonial presence Gauguin found, and a shorter version, carved later, for the tourist trade.

Some of the more refined pieces provide an ironic contrast to the "primitive" quality Gauguin chose for the woodcuts that headed the chapters for his (somewhat fictionalized) memoir, Noa Noa. This stuff isn't primitive.

Gauguin clearly took a romantic sensibility to the islands. Though the "Romantic period" in European art may have ended earlier in the 19th century, Brettell argued that that doesn't matter. "One of the polluting ideas of modern art," he said, "is that there are these sequential movements that follow one after another." Gauguin's style was romantic, even though his timing might not have fit neatly into the official romantic era.


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