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Gauguin in Seattle

February 8, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

The show Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise opens tomorrow at the Seattle Art Museum. Last night, Gail and I attended a special preview, which I’ll describe in a moment. First, the show description from the website:

Seattle Art Museum presents the only United States stop for Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, a landmark show highlighting the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin’s work and the art and culture of Polynesia. The exhibition, on view at SAM Downtown February 9 through April 29, 2012, includes about 60 of Gauguin’s brilliantly hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of Polynesian sculpture that fueled his search for the exotic. Organized by the Art Centre Basel, the show is comprised of works on loan from some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Gauguin (1848–1903) is one of the most influential and celebrated artists of the late nineteenth century. From early on in his career he sought inspiration from outside French society in both his life and his work. While his Polynesian experience was a defining factor in both his art and his posthumous reputation, many exhibitions devoted to his work have treated the artist’s direct relationship with Polynesian art as only one small part of his larger enterprise. Through a balanced analysis of Polynesian art alongside Gauguin’s works, this exhibition shifts the emphasis and brings Polynesian arts and culture into the center of Gauguin studies.

We arrived around 6:40 and crowded into the south lobby with the other guests for a short cocktail reception. Close to 7:00, we were all ushered into the adjacent auditorium. Unfortunately, I seem to have tossed the program for this part of the evening, so I don’t have at hand some of the names. In any case, before the ceremonial thank yous and the scholarly lecture, the evening kicked off with a bang. The lights were dimmed and the curtain lifted to reveal five Polynesian drummers. Three younger men, naked from the waist up, appeared from the wings, and performed a haka. That might ordinarily be difficult to follow up, but Charlie Wright, the chair of the SAM board, is pretty smooth, and he agilely kept our attention as he thanked a long list of individuals and organizations for making the exhibition possible.

Next up, an engrossing presentation about Gauguin’s life, his art, and the works in the exhibition by Chiyo Ishikawa, the Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, and Pam McClusky, Curator of Art of Africa and Oceania. (They gave repeat performances today during the general members preview.) We were released at 8:00, with the option of proceeding upstairs to the exhibition itself or hanging out in SAM’s main lobby and event space for food and entertainment.

We started with the food and entertainment. Two tables were set up with identical, Polynesian-themed offerings. There was a small placard listing the items, but to read it I would have had to hold up the line, so I just took one of everything — they were all hors d’oeuvres sized — and proceeded to the drinks table, where I grabbed the featured drink, a rum punch complete with umbrella. I’m not generally a rum punch drinker, or a rum drinker at all, but I didn’t want to be ungracious, so I took it. We found a couple of the rapidly disappearing empty seats, ate our food (pretty darn good; I would happily have had seconds, or thirds, but the lines were long and we had art to see), took our drinks, and squeezed in through the crowd for a view of the entertainment. The same musicians who were the haka drummers, along with a few more, were playing music to which three trios danced: the half-dressed men and two trios of half-dressed women. Well, more than half dressed. One trio of women had bikini tops that looked like molded plastic. Gail explained to me later that they were to be thought of as coconuts. The other trio had fabric tops. And they had little wrap skirts. I was ready to abandon them and my punch so we could see the exhibition, but Gail, who was standing closer up with a better view, seemed to be enjoying the dances, so I waited.

Round about 8:20, we headed upstairs and entered the exhibition. As the blurb above explains, and as the curators demonstrated during their lecture and slide show, the distinctive feature of the exhibition is its juxtaposition of Gauguin’s paintings (presented chronologically) with Polynesian sculpture and artifacts. This is surprisingly effective, as one passes from a room of paintings to a few artifacts, more paintings, an entire room of Polynesian objects, a room of woodblock prints, and so on. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would want to see a show of 60 Gauguins, but the alternation helps to keep one’s eyes fresh and one’s interest piqued. Plus, the opening lecture oriented us well. Many of the objects were already familiar, allowing us to examine the art without fussing with the signs or bothering with the accompanying audio headsets.

Of course, it was late, we were hungry (those hors d’ouevres not quite adding up to a complete dinner), and I didn’t want to be out too late. So we didn’t give the show its due. We got a pretty good overview, which had to do. We have until the end of April to return for a closer examination. And we will.

If you’re in the area, get your timed entry tickets and go too. Or, have a look at the exhibition catalog. In the meantime, below is one of the paintings on loan to the exhibition, Gauguin’s famous Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, usually residing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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