“I am not a painter after nature.”
Along with his contemporaries Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin was a pioneer of modernist art. His use of expressive colors, flat planes, and simplified, distorted forms in paintings, as well as a rough, semi-abstract aesthetic in sculptures and woodcuts, exerted a profound influence on avant-garde artists in the early 20th century, from Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to the German Expressionists.
Gauguin, who had no formal artistic training, led a peripatetic life, settling for extended periods in different parts of the world, including, most famously, Tahiti. He was born in Paris but spent his early childhood in Lima, Peru, where his mother had relatives. His attachment to Peru helped stoke a lifelong desire to travel and to self-identify as a “savage,” a term encapsulating his idealizing and derogatory view of the non-Western peoples and cultures by which he was influenced. As a young man, he worked on the stock exchange in Paris and painted in his spare time. Between 1879 and 1886 he exhibited with the Impressionists, but he subsequently aligned himself with the nascent Symbolist movement, which prioritized inner feelings and oblique evocations over the visual effects of light in nature. In 1882, after losing his job during the French stock market collapse, he pursued painting as a full-time career.
In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, which had long loomed large in his imagination as a paradise unspoiled by European social mores. There he created luminous paintings and small, totem-like wood sculptures that he described as “ultra-savage.” These works, including Hina Tefatou (The Moon and the Earth) (1893), were not so much a depiction of what he saw there as an idealized projection of what he had hoped he might find. The artist returned to France in 1893, but, disappointed with the response to his Tahitian-themed paintings, he left permanently in 1895 and made his second voyage to Tahiti. In 1901 he moved to the remote Marquesas Islands, where he died in 1903.
More than any other major artist of his generation, Gauguin drew inspiration from working across multiple mediums. In addition to painting, he was at various moments intensely engaged with ceramics, woodcarving, lithography, woodcut, monotype, and transfer drawing. In woodcuts such as Te Atua (The Gods) (1893–94), he combined the bold gouging of his carved wood sculptures with glowing, evocative color. He used oil transfer drawing—a hybrid of drawing and printmaking that he invented—to make large, highly finished compositions such as Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900). With these forays into printmaking, Gauguin capitalized on the subtle abstractions of printing to impart a mysterious, dreamlike quality to his images.
Note: Opening quote is from Goldwater, Robert, and Paul Gauguin. Paul Gauguin (New York: Abrams, 1983), 28.
Starr Figura, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016