Seattle Art Museum (SAM) presents Gauguin and Polynesia. An Elusive Paradise

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) presents Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, an exhibition on view through April 29, 2012.


Paul Gauguin, Parahi te Marae (The Sacred Mountain), 1892. Oil on canvas, 26 x 35in. (66 x 88.9cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, 1980.

Seattle Art Museum (SAM) presents the only United States stop for Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, a landmark show highlighting the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin’s work and the art and culture of Polynesia. The exhibition, on view February 9 through April 29, 2012, includes nearly 60 of Gauguin’s brilliantly hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of forceful Polynesian sculpture. Organized by the Art Centre Basel the show is comprised of works on loan from some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Recognized for his distinctive palette and the evocative symbolism of his subject matter, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) is one of the most influential and celebrated artists of the late nineteenth century and was a leader in the Post-Impressionist movement that rejected Impressionism’s emphasis on visual observation. Along with Vincent van Gogh, Emile Bernard and others, Gauguin sought to bring timelessness and poetry into painting. From very early in his career, Gauguin yearned for the exotic in both his life and his work, leading to two significant sojourns in French Polynesia – a two-year stay in Tahiti beginning in 1891 and a second trip to Tahiti, and later, to the even more remote Marquesas Islands, where he would spend the final years of his life searching for the elusive, perfectly primitive life.

Gauguin’s Polynesian experience was a defining factor in both his art and his posthumous reputation, but most exhibitions have treated Polynesian art itself as merely a stylistic tool for the artist. Gauguin and Polynesia aims to contribute not only to a deeper understanding of Gauguin’s work, but also to further an understanding of Polynesian culture. Gauguin and Polynesia traces Gauguin’s journey from bourgeois stockbroker to full-time artist, while at the same time tracing Polynesia’s artistic evolution during the 18th and 19th centuries. Providing a balance of Polynesian art alongside Gauguin’s works, the exhibition offers a solid analysis of how this one artist enacted his own quest for the Polynesian past and reacted to the changes evident in Polynesia during his lifetime. Distinctive sculpture and ornamentation in wood, shell and other natural materials from Tahiti, Easter Island, the Marquesas and elsewhere, will be featured near many of Gauguin’s most iconic canvases including Women of Tahiti (Femmes de Tahiti), 1891; Faaturuma (Melancholic), 1891; Arearea no Varua ino (Words of the Devil, or Reclining Tahitian Women), 1894 and Tehamana Has Many Parents, 1893. Such juxtapositions underscore the complex collision of traditional Polynesian art forms with French colonial pressures, and Gauguin’s distinctly European romanticizing of a simpler and more “natural” way of life.

“The Seattle Art Museum presents its collections in ways that encourage you to look at history while breaking down barriers of time and culture,” said Chiyo Ishikawa, Deputy Director for Art at SAM. “For us, this exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to continue our mission, fostering a deeper understanding of seemingly disparate cultures through the art that brought them together.”

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