A critic at my house sees some paintings. Breathing heavily he asks for my drawings. My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets. The public man, the private man.
-- Paul Gauguin (1903)
"Intimate Encounters: Paul Gauguin and the South Pacific" tells some secrets. Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, Sept. 6, 2003-Jan. 11, 2004, the show presents 54 works on paper from the last 13 years of Gauguin's life and career: his first visit to Tahiti (1891-93); his return to Paris (1893-95); and his final years in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands (1895-1903). We see drawings, watercolors, woodcuts, monotypes and lithographs. These unfamiliar works help us understand how Gauguin created his paintings of Tahiti.
Gauguin was first an Impressionist. In about 1884, he broke with Impressionism, abandoned perspective, adopted a more sensuous line and sought to intensify his work with "primitive" imagery that he adapted from objects he saw in Parisian museums. On a trip to Martinique in 1887, he discovered tropical landscape and color.
By 1890, Gauguin had joined the circle around Stphane Mallarm, the Symbolist poet. Under Mallarm's influence, Gauguin moved away from representation toward an art of suggestion and feeling. Instead of just depicting things, he wanted to show the effects they created. Over time, his paintings evolved into dream-like creations that combined visual materials from art history with his imaginative dramatization of French Polynesia.
"Exile and Renewal"
On Apr. 1, 1891, Gauguin left France to "seek exile and renewal" in Tahiti. He soon discovered that the island had become very French and was not the unspoiled paradise that he had expected. He blamed Christian missionaries and the colonial administration for destroying native culture, but stayed for two years.
"Intimate Encounters" exhibits sketchbook pages from this time. Gauguin drew figures and animals. He colored in some scenes. Using photographs and reproductions, the exhibition demonstrates how Gauguin later incorporated some of these materials into his paintings and prints. The watercolor monotype Aha Oe Feii? What! Are You Jealous? (1894), for example, contains imagery that the artist transferred from his sketchbooks.
Gauguin returned to France in August of 1893 with many paintings and an idea for a book (eventually published as Noa-Noa) that would describe his artistic rejuvenation through contact with the "primitive" in Tahiti. He made a suite of ten woodcuts, which he hoped to publish as an album.
Seven of these woodcuts are included in "Intimate Encounters." Two of them -- Maruru (1893-94) and The Creation of the Universe (1893-94) hang next to alternate impressions that Gauguin made as he experimented with technique. Posthumous printings that Gauguin's son Pola made in 1924 are also shown.
Normally, the first impressions of a print are crisper than those that follow as the plate or block wears. Here the reverse is true. Pola's impressions are much clearer than those that Paul Gauguin himself made. The early 1893-94 woodcuts have an amateurish look.
Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers, the Art Institute curators who organized "Intimate Encounters," believe that Gauguin deliberately printed his woodcuts unevenly. To create an atmosphere of mystery and dream, he stained the paper support with color prior to printing, applied ink inconsistently to the block and exerted uneven pressure during printing. The resulting images look clumsy and are hard to read. Portions move in and out of focus and there are blurry washes of color. By intention, the scenes look unreal.
Gauguin exhibited his Tahitian paintings in fall of 1893, but the show failed. Only Mallarm liked the new work. During the next year, Gauguin made more prints, including five watercolor monotypes that we see together with variant impressions.
Druick and Zegers explain that Gauguin's monotype technique involved "offsetting watercolor or gouache designs on paper. Placing a piece of dampened paper over the original design, the artist exerted pressure with an implement such as the back of a spoon. Since the moisture in the paper partially dissolved the water-based medium, the original design would thus be transferred in reverse onto the paper."
This technique "allowed the artist to realize multiple variant impressions of a basic design" despite the uniqueness suggested by the name monotype. "Partially products of chance -- like the impressions he pulled of his woodcuts -- Gauguin's monotypes are often characterized by a pale, softened quality that makes them appear as if they are distant memories on the verge of fading away." In this sense, Gauguin's prints evoke nostalgia for an irretrievable past in a different -- and possibly more eloquent -- way than the paintings that provided their motifs. The curators reached these conclusions after long study of the work and experiments with monotypes in which they recreated Gauguin's effects.
The woodcuts and monotypes are the core of "Intimate Encounters," its reason for being. The Art Institute's exceptionally deep collection of Gauguin's works on paper made it easier for the curators to do their detective work. Chicago collector Edward McCormick Blair gave 41 Gauguin works on paper to the Art Institute in 2002. "Intimate Encounters" honors that gift.
The Second Sojourn
Gauguin returned to Tahiti in July of 1895. Three years later, he began to make woodcuts, preferring this hand technique to photomechanical reproduction, which he called "loathsome." There are six of these woodcuts in "Intimate Encounters." At this time, he also created a new medium that was based on the carbon-paper principle. As the curators explain, he applied a coat of ink to one sheet of paper, placed a second over it and drew on the top sheet with pencil or crayon.
The pressure exerted by the drawing implement transferred the ink from the first sheet of paper onto the back of the top sheet, which was then considered a finished work of art. Essentially, the process roughens the drawn line such that images lose their outlines and look very old. These intriguing experiments are only fitfully successful.
Gauguin is known for his imaginary scenes of the mysterious tropics. "Intimate Encounters" suggests how he got some of his effects. We see two versions of the woodcut Tahitian Girl in a Pink Pareu (1894). In the first, the girl is alone in an empty background. In the second, a male in profile at bottom left looks up at the girl. The two may possibly be talking, but if they are, their conversation is hushed and in a foreign tongue. The first image is simply a girl in a dress, but the second is filled with unanswered questions. Quiet conversation -- or the suggestion of it -- is a key element in Gauguin's Tahiti paintings.
Anti Te Pape (1893/94) is a woodcut in black, orange and yellow. A languid female reclines in a landscape that surrounds her like an amphitheater. In one variant, there is a woman behind, with arms raised and her back turned to the viewer. This second woman could be frightened, angry or despairing -- we don't know. The two women belong to different worlds. We make of this image what we will.
Gauguin's techniques anticipate much in contemporary photography. Numerous photo artists deliberately create blurry images that make us squint. Others make vague, puzzling images that hover just beyond our grasp. What Gauguin did with the woodcut and monotype, photographers do now by shooting out of focus.
Many contemporary photographs show two people who occupy the same space but without communicating. Others are created scenes, often oddly lit, which suggest unexplained personal relationships or some dreadful event that's about to happen. We find all this in Gauguin's work, albeit in different media. Gauguin may not be the first or the only artist of his time to create such images, but he did it very well and today's photographers are his children.
"Intimate Encounters" tells some Gauguin secrets and shows us an artist who challenged himself until the very end of his life. We leave it with fresh understanding and heightened admiration for Paul Gauguin.