The Gauguin Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago


Three members of the Lewis Faculty recently attended the exhibit and comment on the show. They are Dr. Dominic Colonna (Theology), Leslie Colonna (Art), and Dr. Michael Cunningham (English). The exhibit closes on September 10.

Gauguin and Spirituality, Dr. Dominic Colonna

From a theological perspective, Gauguin is not one of my favorite artists.  I like his use of color but I am not a fan of his intentionally simple and two-dimensional way of representing figures and forms.  (And although I don’t need explicitly religious subject matter to appreciate the spiritual value of a work of art, Gauguin’s famous focus on Polynesian culture has been only mildly interesting to me.  The show at the Art Institute, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist,” does not include his culminating spiritual work and masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  Despite these challenges to my appreciation of this special exhibit, the show was extraordinary in helping me to understand how Gauguin contributed to the spirituality of his era.  Specifically, the exhibit outlines a spirituality that represents both a mature Deism and is “spiritual but not religious” in ways consistent with popular attitudes toward religious faith.

One display in the exhibit illustrates a significant transition in Gauguin’s style and a clear statement of his spirituality in a comparison of his Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) with Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven.  From a simple formal analysis, we can see easily Gauguin’s movement from the “feathery brushwork and the soft, blended colors” of impressionism to “simplified forms, delineated zones of color, and [a] vivid but limited palette,” of Gauguin’s “symbolist” style.  This features of Gauguin’s “symbolist” style are discernible from a theological perspective, too.  Vision of the Sermon combines the period’s interest in “mystical” religious experiences (the Breton women at prayer) along with a fascination with the peculiarities of native cultures, in this case, the headwear of the Breton women and the biblical subject matter.  (To my delight, the exhibit includes an example of the headwear that appears in the paintings.)  Earlier works of art on display in the show reveal Gauguin’s interest in cultural “symbols,” artifacts, and concepts and his “transcultural borrowings” to form his own personal spiritual reflection.  The presentation of Vision of the Sermon allows us to see how Gauguin the “alchemist” fancifully creates an imaginative, personal, religious narrative in a way that I did not see earlier in the show.

Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ is exhibited in a way similar to Vision of the Sermon, “framed” in a way that illustrates Gauguin’s evolution in style and spirituality.  With the continued use of simplified forms and a limited palette, Gauguin depicts what appears to be a mystical vision of a different cultural artifact, in this case, a crucifix from a local Breton church.  Next to The Yellow Christ is a self-portrait of Gauguin with The Yellow Crucifix in the background.  Also in the picture is what seems to be another self-portrait, but one in the form of a three-dimensional “tiki-like” creation of Gauguin.  (This object appears in this part of the exhibit, too.)  What we encounter is an idiosyncratic juxtaposition of symbols which suggests a highly personal spirituality that incorporates objects and ideas that please Gauguin.

These two parts of the exhibit helped me to appreciate the historical place of Gauguin’s spirituality.  Contextualized as they are in this exhibition, the simple eroticism and exoticism of Gauguin’s Polynesian portraits make sense to me.  Throughout his work, this “alchemist” “magically” pulls together ordinary and distinctive cultural artifacts and ideas to create, what he believed, were elements of a coherent and personally meaningful spirituality.  Apparently, Gauguin, like many of his era, longed for an imagined “civilized savage” culture that no longer existed (and might never have existed).  Because he longed for a simpler, spiritually purer, pre-colonial culture, he pursued “fictionalized” and “mythologized” imagery in his work.

Kindred Spirits, Leslie Colonna (Art and Graphic Design)

Art history books are filled with stories of artists being influenced by what they see in art exhibits.  How many times I have read accounts like this one: “Matisse… had likely encountered African sculptures at the Trocadéro museum.  Upon returning [he] painted two versions of The Young Sailor with a visage reminiscent of a mask.” (1)  For me too, every exhibit is food for my own work.  I have the fondest memories of my best friend and I regularly visiting the Met in NYC.  We would stand in front of master works and figure out how they were made, anxious to get back to our own studios.  So, at the Gauguin exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago I was focused on doing the same, although I must say, I did not have great expectations.  My greatest affiliation with the artist was we share the same birthday.  What I came away with was an appreciation of the artist’s larger creative process.  As highlighted by the exhibit curators, Gauguin explored every possible medium using the same motifs, the same elements, and the same compositional devices.  He was mercilessly prolific.  His work declares itself valid through it the relentless energy and repetition of imagery.  I got the message he had an unfiltered faith in his grand experiment in art.  Perhaps he was arrogant, but I like to think he had a faith in the creative process, in the experiment of art.  Not all his work was perfect.  Coming back to my own studio I had a renewed acceptance of my own work.  I too work across mediums and see experimentation in itself as worthwhile (something I encourage in my students’ work).  I will say no more but would like to share images of some of my unfinished pieces.  You will see the same motif in multiple mediums.  It could be a cloud, a bunch of flowers, a body, an internal organ, a larva, or a nonobjective image and it could be two-dimensional or three.  It could be in clay, paint wood, wire, stone, or pastel.  Maybe Gauguin and I are kindred spirits in that we sense some essential forms throughout the world, in multiple formats and situations and in that we respect the human creative act, as worthy to be seen as part of the finished product.  I think I like his approach.  After all, we do share the same birthday!

Literary Treatments of Paul Gauguin, Dr. Michael Cunningham, English

There have been two novelizations of the life and work of Gauguin. The first is by British novelist W. Somerset Maugham and the second is by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner in Literature (2010). The two works were published almost a century apart. Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence appeared in 1918, fifteen years after Gauguin’s death, while Llosa’s The Way to Paradise was published exactly one hundred years after.

No doubt what has drawn these quite different writers to the life of Gauguin is that the French post-impressionist is a model for writers and citizens who are among civilization’s discontents. In Gauguin we find the rejection of bourgeois conformity and artistic tradition in favor of living an experimental life far removed from civilization. We also find the casting off established artistic formulae in favor of advancing the vocabulary of expressive creativity. Gauguin represents the artist who pursues his artistic dream unmindful of the consequences of his decisions on the lives of others.

The Maugham work advances the image of the creative but destructive genius, building upon Gauguin’s own efforts at self-mythologizing. The observer Maugham is drawn to Gauguin but distances himself in two important ways. The first is that his character is a Brit named Charles Strickland who, like Gauguin, suddenly ends his life as accountant and dutiful family man in pursuit of his dream of artistic freedom in the South Pacific. Maugham’s Strickland appears to be more single-minded, cruel, and more divorced from the European art scene than does the Gauguin model. The second way that Maugham gets distance on his subject is through the use of a first person narrator who is a casual acquaintance of Strickland, knowing him socially in London and then, after Strickland’s death, traveling to Tahiti to piece together the daily life of the artist who marries an indigenous woman and who orders her to burn much of his work before his death by leprosy. Thus, this urbane narrator serves the same function as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (published in 1922); he’s drawn to his subject and is equally idolatrous of the larger than life figure but equally skeptical of and woeful about the harm that he has done to his family.

Llosa’s work may be the better book of the two, in part because it partakes of a more modern temperament. Also, because it employs a narrative structure that sheds more light on the central character. Llosa does not deflect Gauguin’s identity. His work is clearly a fictionalization of the life of the French artist. But Llosa’s ambition is larger than Maugham’s, for The Way to Paradise contains not one but two fictionalized biographies. The second figure in the frame is Gauguin’s maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan. Tristan was a French writer and feminist-activist in the first half of the 19th century. She was the illegitimate offspring of a French women and a Peruvian aristocrat who served in the Spanish navy. Her father was born in Arequipa, Peru, Llosa’s city of birth.

One can imagine that Llosa was attracted to the Gauguin story because of Tristan’s Peruvian lineage and Gauguin’s efforts to duplicate the look of Andean pottery. But the better explanation can be found in the fact that both activist grandmother and artistic grandson – who never met because Tristan died in 1844, four years before Gauguin’s birth – were rebels against convention and dreamers who imagined a radically different world. The “paradise” in the title of Llosa’s novel refers to both the urban workers’ paradise that Tristan worked toward achieving but also the “primitive” island idyll that Gauguin settled into.

[The exhibit makes very clear that by the time Gauguin arrived in Tahiti and in the Marquesas in the late 19th century, these idyllic places had already bore the marks of European civilization and trade. Thus the idea that the images of paradise on Gauguin’s canvases represented not documentary evidence of an Edenic place but rather Gauguin’s imaginative projection of what he thought used to be.]

Llosa shuffles the deck, alternating between four figures: the characters as they strive to realize their dreams and the characters as they reflect near the point of death on what they have achieved. In this way he enables the reader to contemplate the possibilities for different visions of utopia.

[You’ll also find at this site a recent blog post that I did on Llosa’s 2007 Year of the Goat, a literary treatment of the last year in the reign of Dominican dictator Trujillo.]

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

One thought on “The Gauguin Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago

  1. May 17, 2019 at 5:38 am

    Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing with us. To make a exhibition successful it is very important to choose right exhibition booth design and stands to showcase the products or art elements. This make the exhibition more interesting and attractive.

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