The imposing idols seen here reflect the figural style of Oceanic sculptures that Gauguin had seen during his travels. To create these prints, the artist first cut his composition into a block of hard wood, delineating the figures with abrupt, gouged lines. Then he selectively inked and wiped the block before printing the image on a sheet of paper. The dark and mysterious areas of the composition create an aura of the exotic and the spiritual.
The Gods (Te Atua) is one of ten woodcuts executed by Gauguin after his return to Paris from Tahiti in 1893. They were intended as illustrations to a text that he planned to publish about his experiences in the South Seas. With this book, which he titled Noa Noa (the Tahitian word for fragrance), he hoped to provide a background for the public’s understanding of his new Symbolist paintings.
Gauguin had left for Tahiti in 1891 to escape the pressures of modern-day life and to seek an unspoiled society in tune with nature. There he painted a number of important canvases inspired by his Tahitian experiences. He made his second trip to the South Seas in 1894; but the Noa Noa project was never realized as the book he had planned. He died in the Marquesas Islands in 1903.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999.
Ever seized by wanderlust, Paul Gauguin sought to abandon the European life he viewed as conventional and artificial in favor of one in tune with nature and free of the constraints of Western social mores. In search of a more vital and authentic way of life, he made his first sojourn to Tahiti in 1891. Although the island was not the untouched Eden he had hoped for, he was still greatly inspired by the people, culture, and lifestyle there, and these new influences were reflected in his paintings, sculptures, and drawings. After he returned to Europe in 1893, he began working on Noa Noa (Tahitian for “fragrance”), a book project based on his Tahitian experience and illustrated with woodcuts that were meant to make his new art more understandable to his contemporaries. Although never realized in their intended form, both the text and the ten woodcuts for Noa Noa survive among Gauguin’s seventy-eight printed compositions in woodcut, etching, and lithography.
The Noa Noa woodcuts illustrate everything that drew Gauguin to printmaking. Although the woodcut had seen a modest revival in the nineteenth century, no example matched the audacity of Gauguin’s approach to the medium, which allowed him to work on a natural, “primitive” matrix, creating works that combined the sculptural gouging of his carved wood low reliefs with the evocative color of his paintings. It also provided seemingly endless opportunity for experimentation. Gauguin printed Noa Noa blocks with various inkings and color combinations, on different papers, and sometimes slightly off-register to create a blurred, dreamlike image, as in The Gods. In addition to the Noa Noa woodcuts printed by the artist, impressions were also pulled by the professional printer Louis Roy during the artist’s lifetime; others were produced posthumously by Gauguin’s son, Pola, and by others.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 42.