One of the most extraordinary works in the current exhibition Gauguin: Metamorphoses is Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900), which was acquired for MoMA’s collection just weeks before the exhibition opened. Among the many exceptionally innovative works on paper that are the focus of the exhibition, this exciting new acquisition stands out for its monumental scale and magisterial presence. It is an oil transfer drawing, a hybrid medium of drawing and print that Paul Gauguin invented while living in Tahiti in 1899.
In many ways, hybridity was a hallmark of Gauguin’s creative process. His wood relief sculptures, carved in shallow relief and painted, can be seen as a hybrid of painting and sculpture. His experimental monotypes and transfer drawings combine elements of painting, drawing, and printmaking. He derived the subjects in his works from countless sources, fusing references from Christianity, Polynesian myth, and ancient monuments with motifs drawn from the artworks of his European predecessors and contemporaries. In the process of repeating and recombining motifs drawn from disparate sources over and over again, metamorphoses took place.
I find Gauguin’s oil transfer drawings to be the most fascinating example of metamorphosis in his oeuvre. Each is a double-sided work with a drawing on one side (the verso), and an oil transfer on the other (the recto). Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit is an outstanding example of this unprecedented technique:
Gauguin described the process in a March 1902 letter to his patron Gustave Fayet: “First you roll out printer’s ink on a sheet of paper of any sort; then lay a second sheet on top of it and draw whatever pleases you. The harder and thinner your pencil (as well as your paper), the finer will be the resulting line.” The pressure of the pencil caused the ink from the bottom sheet to transfer to the back of the top sheet. When the sheets were peeled apart, the transferred image became the final work of art. Gauguin used sharp graphite pencils and softer blue pencils to delineate the figures; these lines appear as black ink on the recto. He subsequently added the olive tone to the recto by covering another sheet of paper with olive ink, laying his sheet with the black ink transfer on top, and applying pressure selectively to enable the transfer of ink. With this technique, Gauguin was able to almost magically transform and obfuscate his images. The exquisitely detailed pencil drawing, executed with clarity on the verso, undergoes a sort of metamorphosis to engender the mysterious print on the recto. Gauguin was enchanted with this process, with the way it transformed the texture of his lines and introduced an element of chance into the creative process. The incidental markings, blurred lines, and earthy tones of the transfer suggest an image unearthed from a lost time.
Only about 89 oil transfer drawings—dating from 1899, when Gauguin first devised the technique, to 1903, the year of his death—have been documented. They range from sketch-like studies to highly finished works. Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit is one of the largest and most finished examples of Gauguin’s efforts in this medium. It was among the 10 major transfer drawings that Gauguin sent to his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, in Paris in 1900, to showcase his radical experiments with this technique.
The subject of a beautiful woman haunted by a mysterious spirit resonates throughout Gauguin’s oeuvre. In Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit, a half-human, half-beast figure looms behind a bare-breasted woman. The young woman gazes out at the viewer with an enigmatic expression, conveying the ambiguity of her relationship with her spirit companion. Gauguin copied the female figure, with spiked hair, hanging braids, and a beaded necklace in the form of a snake, from a photograph he owned of a young girl from the Polynesian island of Tonga. He based the horned, semi-bestial male on a wood sculpture he had created a few years earlier, Head with Horns (1895–97).
Mining his own previous work and a photographic document of an “exotic” culture, Gauguin created a hybrid in terms of both technique and subject matter. This oil transfer drawing represents one of the artist’s most important achievements in the realm of works on paper, and we are thrilled to welcome it into MoMA’s collection.
Gauguin: Metamorphoses is on view until June 8. To learn more about oil transfer drawings, and to watch an animated slide show explaining the process, check out the section of our exhibition website devoted to Gauguin’s techniques.