Art Institute exhibition explores the art, craftsmanship and alchemy of Paul Gauguin



The shallow contours of the life of Paul Gauguin, the revolutionary and convention-defying French Post-Impressionist artist, are widely known. If you were to condense it into a Twitter-like post, it might read: “Born in Paris, 1848; childhood in Peru; joined the merchant navy; stockbroker and father of a family in Paris; throws everything to paint and goes to Tahiti in 1891. Died at 54 years old.


When: June 25 – September 10

Or: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

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And of course, there are the emblematic paintings of the years that the artist spent in Brittany, on the Franco-Caribbean island of Martinique, and especially in the South Pacific, the inspiration for his exotic, dreamy, loaded canvases. of eroticism that burst with vivid colors and capture the beauty and mystery of the indigenous women of the islands.

But there is much more to be discovered about Gauguin’s art, particularly the ways in which his enthusiastic appropriation of other cultures has manifested itself in three-dimensional works of sculpture, ceramics, decorative woodcarvings, decorative woodcarvings. furniture and found object processing. And it is this aspect of the artist’s work – shown alongside some of his most famous paintings and an extensive collection of prints – that is at the heart of the massive new exhibition, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist “, which will take place on June 25. – Sept. 10 at the Art Institute of Chicago, then travel to the Grand Palais in Paris in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay.

“Earthly Paradise” (1888) a chestnut and pine cabinet, carved and polychrome, part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist”. | Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Gauguin exhibition is the brainchild of Gloria Groom, Chair of European Sculpture and Painting, and David and Mary Winton Green Curator at the Art Institute. It includes 240 works from the Institute’s own collection (which has one of the world’s largest collections of the artist’s works on paper), and from museums and private collections around the world, all brought together for help explore Gauguin’s ambition to “push the boundaries and challenge the definition.” It is the largest public display ever of the artist’s ceramics and collections of other objects, now brought together for the first time since they left his studio.

The Art Institute is still renowned for its 1988 Gauguin retrospective, created in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. And Groom learned a lot about the artists through his extensive research for the Institute’s 2001 exhibition, “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Southern Workshop,” which explored the stormy period when the two artists, both in their thirties, tried working in tandem. But for Groom, the spark for this new show came in the form of two purchases made by the Art Institute over the past decade.

“In 2007, the museum bought a sculpted and polychrome cabinet by Gauguin which made me think,” she said. “Not much later, he bought one of his small ceramic pieces which still had the price tag affixed to the bottom, from its sale by Theo Van Gogh [Vincent’s art dealer brother]. So I started to think it was time to dive into the many dimensions of Gauguin’s creative process that people don’t know, and showcase his work in many different mediums.

As for the use of the word ‘alchemist’ in the title of the exhibit, Groom explains, “I wanted to draw people’s attention to the vast array of raw materials he used and the many ways he turned them into. very beautiful objects. And I wanted to suggest its links to mysticism and symbolism, as well as to the later Arts and Crafts movement. Of course, there is also the pop culture reference to “Game of Thrones” and the visit of several characters to the Alchemists’ Guild. More [and Groom laughs at this] the word sounds good in French.

The work outside of painting is gloriously alive, organic, richly textured, imaginative, and well outside the norms of both academic painting of Gauguin’s time and even the art of pushing the envelopes of the Impressionists. As Groom noted, “You have a feeling you could give him any raw material and he would do something beautiful. And this is evident in everything from his leaded pottery works with colorful glazes and unglazed stoneware vases, to decorative canes, a carved wooden barrel, designs for fans and even a weird little pear tree sarcophagus. with iron hinges.

Self-portrait of the artist, part of the exhibition “Gauguin: Artist alchimist”, at the Musée d'Orsay.  |  Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Self-portrait of the artist, part of the exhibition “Gauguin: Artist alchimist”, at the Musée d’Orsay. | Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

As Gauguin himself proclaimed: “It is precisely an endless art that interests me, rich in all kinds of techniques, able to translate all the emotions of nature and humanity.

And although these are the Tahitian paintings for which Gauguin is most famous, his fascination with all things “ethnographic” began much earlier.

“From the start, his life was very different from that of most French artists,” said Groom. “His family moved to Peru to escape the political chaos in France, and he spent the first six years of his life there, exposed to a different culture and language. He circled the world twice while in the Merchant Navy and brought things home from various ports of call. He never went to art school, and he made various objects from the start, while he was learning to paint himself. He had a very global life. He understood that materials gave things meaning, even though the paint was where the money was. And he was ahead of his time in his way of thinking beyond the web.

The exhibition is organized in two sections.

“The first part tries to create a sense of adventure and is very open, with an island mentality in the round and with groupings of objects that can be seen from all sides and are not arranged in chronological order,” said Groom. “They suggest the quality of the experience and trial and error of the work, and its passage from two dimensions to three. The second half of the exhibition is simpler, with paintings and objects from the Polynesian years playing on each other.

“Gauguin was a restless and complicated personality, always seeking recognition,” Groom said. “On the one hand, he was a respectable French citizen with a Danish wife and five children. But he was also the adventurer, and even at the end of his life, when he was ill, he went to the Marquesas Islands, worried about being dull and in search of new inspiration.

Partly glazed stoneware vase in the shape of Leda and the swan, part of the exhibition

Partly glazed stoneware vase in the shape of Leda and the swan, part of the exhibition “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist”, at the Art Institute of Chicago. | Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


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