Gauguin the Primitive

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The New York Sun

“Gauguin: Metamorphosis,” presenting nearly 160 works reassessing the unusual career of Paul Gauguin, is, surprisingly, the Museum of Modern Art’s first major exhibition to focus solely on the self-taught and influential 19th-century painter.

Gauguin’s alchemical use of color and simplified forms would go on to greatly impact the Symbolist and Modern art movements. Viewing the exhibit one wonders what to make of the man, heralded by many as a great painter and disparaged by as many others as a retrograde.

Gauguin had no formal artistic training. His paintings of the late 1870s and 1880s, which are not part of this exhibition, have a delicate charm that combines with the modernist sense of composition and color to depict the French countryside and its inhabitants. Their simplicity and directness of color and expression predicts the painters of the next generation, such as Lucien Pissaro.

In the 1890s Gauguin traveled to Tahiti and was deeply influenced by the extravagant tropical colors. Largely abandoning any sense of subtlety and soft transitions of tone, his colors become loud, hot, and powerful. Untempered, the yellows are sharp lemon, the oranges are bright tangerine, and the delicate touches of the brush that had once indicated grasses and leaves gives way to flatter applications of paint.

This sense of flatness lends an illustrative quality to “Mata mua (in Olden Times).” Purplish mountains rise behind lime green hills and acidic yellow trees as female figures dance before a primitive statue. Others rest in the foreground on a hillock, one playing a reed pipe. A tree splits the composition vertically, its branches extending sinuously left and right, exaggerating the sense of flatness.

“Two Tahitian Women with Flowers and Fruit” is so charming, its graceful composition of simplified shapes enhanced by a minimal modeling of forms. The women glance away shyly as one folds her hands in worship while clutching pink flowers, her head tilted dove-like, and the other holds an elongated bowl of red fruit to her breasts.

Besides paintings and related sculptures, the exhibit showcases nearly 130 works on paper, both drawings and prints. It was into the medium of printmaking that Gauguin poured so much of his artistic effort.

“Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit” is a strange and disturbing image. She reclines topless, lethargic while staring off to the side and holding onto the bed frame, as a horned evil spirit peers menacingly from behind, its sinister hand reaching forward like some prop in a B-movie with Boris Karloff. Done as a drawing in graphite and blue pencil, the reverse image appears as an oil transfer drawing on the recto.

“Girl with a Fan,” a late painting, strips away the busy jungle vines and air of primitive magic. A young woman sits in a chair before an empty background, holding a fan of white feathers as a blue tropical flower floats like a memory in the air. We sense his earlier style reawakened in its subtler palette, but in another year he would be sick and facing a prison sentence for libel before dying of a morphine overdose in 1903.

“Gauguin: Metamorphosis” is on view through Sunday June 8, 2014, at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019. 212-708-9400,

More information about Robert Edward Bullock’s work can be found at

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