October 2009 Issue
“Gauguin painted more from the imagination than from life.”
By Linda Feagler
In a 19th-century art world that was replete with the palatial landscapes of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, Paul Gauguin was a breath of fresh air. For while the exquisite pastels of the impressionists depicted the familiar, Gauguin offered a taste of the exotic: Tahiti, Martinique, Brittany and Arles were favorite ports of call — which he captured vividly in brilliant hues of green, blue, crimson and yellow.
“Gauguin painted,” explains Heather Lemonedes, associate curator of drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, “more from the imagination than from life.”
From October 4 through January 18, the museum is presenting “Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889.” A retrospective co-curated by Lemonedes and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it comprises 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper by the renowned artist and his contemporaries.
The focus of the exhibit is the year that would prove to be the turning point in Gauguin’s life: Although he had been painting for more than a decade, it was in 1889, at the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair held in Paris, that critics stopped short and took notice. Up until that point, says Lemonedes, Gauguin had been spending much of his time living the life of a “bourgeois businessman and Sunday painter.”
Although not considered a well-established artist, Gauguin was a relentless self-promoter who didn’t let denial of his request to be part of the Exposition’s official art exhibit deter him from having a presence there. He, along with a circle of friends that included fellow post-impressionists Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, Charles Laval and Emile Schuffenecker, displayed more than a hundred of their works at a cafe on the fairgrounds that summer.
“This wasn’t the first time Gauguin showed publicly in Paris,” Lemonedes says. “But it was the moment in which he declared himself a professional artist and the leader of a new school of young painters.”
His works served as mysterious glimpses of faraway places, based on a childhood spent in Peru and the experiences of his youth in the merchant marine: Bretons swathed in Celtic costumes and more than a hint of sensuality emanating from his illustrations of island women.
Critics were intrigued by the colorful canvases.
“One said that this was the art of the future,” says Lemonedes. “It’s quite remarkable that someone picked up on that in 1889.”
Focal points of the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit include “In the Waves,” Gauguin’s oil painting of a redhead immersed in the sea, and “The Volpini Suite,” a hand-colored set of lithographs made on zinc plates that chronicled everyday life in the environment he loved.
“Gauguin’s work is endlessly fascinating,” Lemonedes says. “Through it all is the notion of escape and his desire to get back to something more real than the life he was living.
“Here was an artist who only posthumously achieved the acclaim and recognition he craved, and was always searching for paradise.
“I don’t think,” she muses, “that he ever really found it.”