Gauguin painted “Breton Girl” in Brittany in 1889. (Courtesy Ole Haupt © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen/

Gauguin’s changing styles reflect a spiritual journey

Paul Gauguin, the French post-impressionist painter and rule-breaker whose flattened imagery, bold colors and Polynesian subjects significantly influenced modern art, has inspired an exhibition exploring what he was seeking when he sailed to the islands and how his key relationships shaped his work.

“Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey,” at the de Young Museum, contains more than 60 oil paintings, carvings and other works by Gauguin from Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, along with art of the Pacific Islands from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco collection. Curated by FAMSF’s Christina Hellmich, it traces the career of Gauguin from its impressionist beginnings to its “primitivist” years.

A former stockbroker, Gauguin (1848-1903) was mentored by impressionists Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro in Paris. In the exhibit, side-by-side landscapes by Pissarro and Gauguin illustrate Pissarro’s influence. Gauguin’s “Sailing Vessel in Moonlight” (1878) also features Gauguin’s early, impressionist style.

Gauguin relocated to Denmark with his Danish wife, Mette Gad. The exhibition emphasizes Mette’s crucial support of Gauguin’s art, which outlasted the couple’s relationship.

We follow Gauguin to Brittany, where the down-to-earth peasants and scenery appealed to him. “Landscape From Brittany With Breton Women” (1888), with its flattened shapes and abstracted figures, and “Still Life With Onions and Japanese Woodcut” (1889), containing heightened colors and dark outlines, illustrate his post-impressionist style in the making.

Gauguin painted “Breton Girl” in Brittany in 1889. (Courtesy Ole Haupt © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen/
FAMSF)

Desiring more exotic and “savage” surroundings, Gauguin, in 1891, traveled to Polynesia — to New Zealand, the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti. Its landscapes and people, especially its young women, rendered in “primitive” mode, became his artistic subjects.

It is not clear to what degree Gauguin truly understood the island cultures he was depicting, and the sexualization of teen girls in his paintings is troubling. Yet, as the exhibit’s Tahiti section demonstrates, some striking artwork emerged from this period.

“Tahitian Woman With a Flower” (1891) suggests a late-19th-century version of a Raphael portrait, with a Tahitian sitter.

“Reclining Tahitian Women,” or “The Amusement of the Evil Spirit” (1894), a centerpiece attraction, is Gauguin’s inimitable salute to Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.” Painted in Paris to pay an inn debt, the picture contains Tahitian figures, fantasy colors, and, reflecting Gauguin’s fascination with Oceanic religions, a Polynesian deity.

Together Gauguin’s primitive and earlier post-impressionist works inspired Picasso, Matisse, the Fauves and the German Expressionists. Picasso’s landmark “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” has been cited as an early 20th-century work influenced by Gauguin.

Also on view are experimental works on paper, wood carvings and ceramic pieces. Gauguin called the latter his “monstrosities.”

A diagram details Gauguin’s relationships with his wife and several teenage Polynesian lovers.

Objects from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection of Oceanic art accompany the Gauguin works.

A video by Yuki Kihara features third-gender Samoans (indigenous Polynesians who are assigned male at birth and display both masculine and feminine traits in ways distinctive to Polynesia) discussing Gauguin’s work.

IF YOU GO
Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey
Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes April 7
Admission: $13 to $28; free for ages 5 and younger
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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