Gauguin: Maker of Myth at National Gallery of Art Washington on

Exhibition running from Feb 27 2011 until Jun 05 2011

Gauguin: Maker of Myth, examines the role that myth-making played in Gauguin's art, shedding new light on his life and career.

The exhibition reflects the remarkable breadth of Gauguin's work with examples from every period (c. 1880–1903), medium (painting, watercolour, pastel, drawing, and prints, ceramic and wooden sculpture, and decorated functional objects), and genre (portraiture, still life, and landscape). 

The exhibition is organized around the most significant themes that pervade his created myths: artist as creator, the quest for spirituality, the search for an earthly paradise (and discovery of a paradise lost), re-creation of the past, archetypal females, and religious commonalities. Gauguin's myth-making drew from his own imagination as well as a wide range of European and non-Western sources, such as biblical literature, contemporary French poetry, Oceanic legends, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These themes interweave with one another throughout the exhibition, following Gauguin as he moved from one locale to another, explored different media, and as his knowledge of other cultures broadened.

The exhibition opens with a series of powerful self-portraits, including Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889), Self-Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head (1889), and the Gallery's Self-Portrait (1889), which present Gauguin's talent for role-playing as he adopts different identities of victim, saint, Christ-like martyr, sinner, and savage. Seen together, they suggest Gauguin's portrayal of himself as a heroic artist in search of deeper truths.

Religious stories and imagery permeate Gauguin's work, but they appeared first in his Breton paintings. Deeply influenced by the intense spiritual atmosphere of Brittany, Gauguin responded with the experimental and highly personal Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888)—the first of his works where colour and space are radically different from reality.

Lured to Tahiti in 1891 by reports of its unspoiled culture, Gauguin was disappointed upon arrival to discover the changes colonialism had brought to its capital of Papeete. Hoping to find a more authentic environment, he moved to the countryside and began painting the Tahiti of his dreams, replete with beautiful women, colourful flowers, and lush greenery—a world of tropical languor, the earthly Paradise he had hoped to find. Using titles rendered in Tahitian to emphasize a sense of exoticism and mystery, Gauguin poses questions through his art, as in the painting Aha oe feii? (What! Are You Jealous?) (1892).

Gauguin's lifelong quest for spiritual harmony led him to look for connections among religions. In his art, Eastern and Western traditions intermingle, with Christianity freely mixing with Oceanic religions, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The subjects Gauguin approached, including creation, death, self-identity, dreams, and the longing for paradise, are addressed across different cultures. His beautiful, enigmatic compositions, such as Te Faaturuma (The Brooding Woman) (1892), Te Rerioa (The Dream) (1897), and Faa Iheihe (To Make Beautiful) (1898) have a contemplative quality; the questions they pose, like so much of Paul Gauguin's art, remain unanswered.

OPENING HOURS: Mon – Sat: 10.00 – 17.00, Sun: 11.00 – 18.00

Image Credits:

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1889, oil on wood, 79.2 x 51.3 cm (31 3/16 x 20 3/16 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889, oil on cradled panel, 28.6 x 36.2 cm (11 1/4 x 14 1/4 in.), Harvard Art Museums/ Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Gift of Walter E. Sachs © Photo credit: Katya Kallsen, President and Fellows of Harvard College

Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm (28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in.), National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women, 1899, oil on canvas, framed: 121.9 x 101.6 x 9.5 cm (48 x 40 x 3 3/4 in.), unframed: 94 x 75.4 cm (37 x 29 11/16 in.), Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of William Church Osborn, 1949

Paul Gauguin, Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch), 1892, oil on burlap mounted on canvas, framed: 92.1 x 113.03 x 6.35 cm (36 1/4 x 44 1/2 x 2 1/2 in.), unframed: 72.4 x 97.5 cm (28 1/2 x 38 3/8 in.), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, A. Conger Goodyear Collection, 1965, © Photo Credit: Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY

Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Landscape, 1891, oil on canvas, framed: 94.3 x 119.38 x 9.53 cm (37 1/8 x 47 x 3 3/4 in.), unframed: 67.95 x 92.39 cm (26 3/4 x 36 3/8 in.), Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Julius C. Eliel Memorial Fund

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