Feature

Exhibit of the week: Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s “absorbing and seductive new exhibition” traces Gauguin’s artistic development ­during a single formative year: 1889.

Cleveland Museum of Art
Through Jan. 18

“No one would ever call Paul Gauguin a nice guy,” said Steven Litt in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Paris stockbroker turned painter abandoned his wife and five children, moved to Tahiti, and had a child with a Polynesian woman there. In 1903, he died in the Marquesas Islands, “after attempting suicide and suffering from strokes, syphilis, and other maladies.” His life story has provided such rich material to myth-makers that it’s easy to forget that Gauguin also “helped launch modern art,” by producing some of the first paintings to drop realism in favor of expressing emotion through color and composition. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s “absorbing and seductive new exhibition” attempts to trace Gauguin’s artistic development ­during a single formative year: 1889. “The show, liberally sprinkled with preparatory works, has the wonderful and gritty informality of a visit to an artist’s studio.”

A little-studied period in the life of this major artist “has been brought to light for the first time,” said Dorothy Shinn in the Akron Beacon Journal. But Gauguin’s work is also accompanied by more than 75 paintings by his contemporaries. In fact, the centerpiece is a re-creation of “an epochal” exhibition staged by Gauguin and his avant-garde cohorts in a French café. “A sort of show within a show,” this gallery reunites paintings by Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Charles Laval, and other like-minded artists, many of which “haven’t hung together since 1889.” Nearby is a set of zincograph prints that Gauguin produced during trips to the south of France and on his first travels to the tropics. Filled with “bathers, laundresses, and figures in exotic landscapes,” they foreshadow the subject matter, motifs, and even particular poses he would return to in his later paintings.

Such preliminary exercises were “of paramount importance” to Gauguin’s artistic development, said Christopher A. Yates in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. He would soon create some of his earliest­ painted masterpieces. Young Christian Girl (1894) and There Is the Temple (1892) draw “symbolic and spiritual meaning” from their bold use of the color yellow. In the Waves (1889), “featuring a red-haired woman caressed by an oncoming wave,” seems to reflect the artist’s budding preoccupation with “primitive” purity. His skepticism about modern civilization would eventually drive him to Tahiti. But even the earliest paintings here, such as Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (1889), hint at his growing uncertainties “about the flawed advance of European civilization.”

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