The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Through June 8

MoMA’s big new show “thrillingly complicates” our understanding of Paul Gauguin, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. We know the basic Gauguin myth—that after a successful career as a French stockbroker, he cast bourgeois existence aside at age 43 and escaped to Tahiti to find a more sensuous, spiritual, primitive life that inspired his colorful, dream-like paintings of the island’s women and large fauna. But only 11 paintings are included in this 170-piece exhibition, and “you may find that you barely look at the canvases.” Commanding the galleries instead are the artist’s wood carvings, his transfer drawings, and especially his “unceasingly experimental” woodcut prints, grouped together in “riveting sequences.” They encourage us to see “a new, grittier sense of life” even in Gauguin’s familiar figures. What’s more, they introduce us to a multimedia magpie—“a Gauguin for our time.”

Gauguin’s little-known prints turn out to have been “some of the most inventive and daring images” any European artist was making at the time, said Jason Farago in The Guardian (U.K.). He regularly reworked figures across different media, often transforming enticing images from his picture-postcard paintings into “something nocturnal, menacing, or obscene.” An 1892 painting of a nude Tahitian woman picking a flower, The Delightful Land, is followed here by six woodcut versions in which the figure nearly disappears behind a cloud of gray ink or surrenders center stage to a frame of “proto-expressionist” flora. Suddenly, Gauguin’s Polynesia looks less like the imagined paradise of a deluded romantic and more like a place that revealed its fair share of terror and pain.

The women got the worst of it, said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Though the curators barely acknowledge the obvious, Gauguin was a pederast and a wife beater, and he openly entertained rape fantasies. The 13-year-old girl he took as a wife appears curled in a fetal position and clearly terrorized in one print series here. Nearby, a monstrous figure in the woodcut Be in Love and You Will Be Happy grabs a naked woman by the arm while a hag-like figure looks on in horror. Gauguin, who “made it his mission to bare the priggish pieties of French society,” may have been trying to reveal his own darkest urges as a way to counter a long tradition in Western art of depicting rape scenes in a way that diminished the violence of the act. If MoMA seems not to take that motive seriously, it’s “only because the museum lacks the artist’s appalling honesty.”