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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 24, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 08
Seattle Art Museum salutes Gauguin and Polynesia
Arts & Entertainment
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Seattle Art Museum salutes Gauguin and Polynesia

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN Contributing Writer

Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise
Seattle Art Museum
Through April 29


Forget the sordid tales of the 13-year-old Polynesian mistress, the 'abandoned' European wife and five children, the horrors of advanced-stage syphilis, the self-doubt that haunted him throughout his career. Go to embrace the artistry of Paul Gauguin and many of the cultural artifacts of Polynesia that influenced him.

The Seattle Art Museum's splendid new show, Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, brings nearly 60 major and minor works by French artist Paul Gauguin to Seattle for a relatively short stay. The exhibit at SAM's downtown main building is in Seattle only until April 29 - a short time for such an important show. Seattle is the only U.S. stop for the dual exhibit of Gauguin's work and many of the Polynesian 'native' craft works that inspired him. After its Emerald City stay, the exhibit moves to Copenhagen, the only other stop in its two-city tour.

SAM's co-curators - Chiyo Ishikawa, representing European paintings and sculpture, and Pam McClusky, curator of art of Africa and Oceania - have done a brilliant job of combining Gauguin's impressive works and major works of Polynesian culture. Major museums from around the world - the British Museum, the Auckland (New Zealand) Museum, Musee d'Orsay in Paris, New York's Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the deYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco, Yale University Art Gallery, and many others, including a number of private collectors - have loaned works for the exhibit. It's probably the only time that these works will be on display together - a once-in-a-lifetime chance to relish the incredible creations by Gauguin and the works that inspired many of them.

The two SAM curators start the show with a gallery of Gauguin's works from his early years in France. The gallery glows with the color of his French-inspired works before visitors enter the second exhibit space. There, a collection of 'native' crafts show Polynesian works before and at the time of Gauguin's first visit in 1891. The next gallery is devoted to Gauguin's works during his first, two-year visit. He sent numerous paintings back to France where few of them sold - many of his major works never sold until years after his early death in 1903. Gauguin was always aware of his lack of financial success and often created works that he thought would impress European collectors. Some did, though many did not. Some of his critics note that he was torn between artistic inspiration and pandering to what he hoped potential buyers would respond to.

The show alternates between Oceania - original works from diverse South Sea cultures - and Gauguin's tropical works, with a few variations. One of the most charming paintings in the show is of flowers from his 'European garden' in Tahiti. Basically, the show groups Polynesian and other cultural artifacts in separate galleries and Gauguin's creations in others. It's a clever presentation choice that intensifies the impact of the Gauguin works.

One sad example of the lack of respect for 'native' art is a major work from the Auckland Museum. It's a large wooden figural box, with two men forming the handles of the complete work. Created and signed by Patoromu Tamatea, the box was given to the Auckland Museum, which added a coin slot and a keyhole for a lock. It was used for donations to the museum, much like Plexiglas cases are used today. The box, with those modifications, was on display for decades until the embarrassed museum staff returned it to storage. Now once again on full artistic display, it has, sadly, not been restored to its original condition. In a nutshell, the figural box represents the disillusionment Gauguin found when he arrived on his first trip.

The Gauguin works on display - many painted on burlap - could easily stand alone. Shown in context with Oceania originals, the South Sea works gain an added dimension. One glorious example: a fence in The Sacred Mountain (1892) takes its design from a motif in a small set of Marquesan ear ornaments. Seeing the painting alone, the fence is a stylistic delight. Knowing the source of the design simply adds to the impact. Another painting with associated impact is Tehamana Has Many Parents, the portrait of a lovely native girl in a black and white striped 'Missionary' dress - high neck, long sleeves. She stares directly at the viewer, beautiful and eternally youthful. Discovering that Tehamana was Gauguin's 13-year-old mistress and the mother of several of his children changes the whole impact. It's still a stunning painting, but knowledge adds or alters the reaction.

Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise opened with a flurry. The first 100 patrons dressed in sunshine yellow (a sacred color in Tahiti) were admitted free on the exhibit's opening day. Discounted prices to the show are offered on First Thursdays in March and April. Student, senior, group, and military discounts are always offered. Museum members, of course, are always admitted without charge, which means that this may be the right time to join or renew membership. A free audio tour is included in the admission, and downtown museum tickets allow a free visit to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, in Volunteer Park, within the same week.

Various special events, including numerous lectures, are also on SAM's schedule. Complete information is available at www.seattleartmuseum.org or at (206) 654-3121. Highest recommendation. Check it out.

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