‘Gauguin and Polynesia’ dazzles the senses, provides food for thought

  • Written by Deborah Stone
“Tahitian Woman with a Flower” Courtesy photo.
Seattle Art Museum’s “Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise” is the talk of the town.

It’s been dazzling visitors since it opened last month to rave reviews.

The exhibit, which will only be shown in Seattle and Copenhagen, is the result of efforts began years ago under former SAM director Mimi Gates. And it’s been well worth the wait.

Gauguin, who was a leading Post-Impressionist in the late 19th century, is best known for the art he created while living on the French colony of Tahiti.

His bold, bright colored paintings were inspired by the sights and people of Polynesia, as well as by their artifacts, which he first saw at the Paris World Fair in 1889.

It was a sculpture from Easter Island, in particular, that piqued his curiosity and intrigued him because of its enigmatic and spookily powerful essence.

Tahiti represented the Promised Land to Gauguin, a man with a restless soul and a perennial case of wanderlust, who yearned to live in an exotic, untouched paradise, far from the conventions of French society.

He found the island landscape and golden light enchanting and was fascinated by the local cultures, though he was surprised and disappointed to find the colony unfortunately altered by Western influence.

SAM’s exhibit contains nearly 60 pieces by Gauguin, including paintings, sculpture and works on paper, as well as an equal number of Polynesian artifacts that reveal the nature of the exchanges of Pacific Island Peoples with Europeans during the nineteenth century.

The exhibition is actually two shows in one, but the best way to look at is from a unifying, blended perspective that encompasses both, allowing one to gain greater insight into the relationship between Gauguin’s work and the traditional Polynesian pieces.

By placing the art alongside the artifacts, we are given a lens through which Gauguin viewed his surroundings.

Art and culture seamlessly merge, resulting in an exhibit with enhanced meaning and ethnographical richness.

There are numerous highlights of the show. The famed painting “Tahitian Woman with a Flower,” for example, is a compelling portrait of a young woman in Western attire. We are drawn to her beauty, which seems to defy the dowdiness of her missionary style dress — an influence from the Christian missionaries who imposed their views of modesty on the Islanders.

In “Women of Tahiti,” another well-known work, two women sit side by side on the sand. They are looking away, one downwards, the other staring at something off to her left.

There is an aura of melancholy exuding from them.

By evading our gaze, they elude our understanding and we are left wondering what they are thinking. This sense of mystery is prominent within many of Gauguin’s paintings and it continues to increase in depth over the span of his career. One of the artist’s most sensational images is “The Royal End,” which was inspired by the death of Tahiti’s King Pomare V in 1891.

The focus of the painting is a severed head resting on a platter in a room decorated with Polynesian artifacts.

In reality, there was never any ritualistic display of the king’s head. Gauguin, who viewed the death as a symbolic loss to Tahitian culture, imagined a scene that did not exist, incorporating into it his captivation with the fate of the biblical John the Baptist.

“The Sacred Mountain” is another eye-catching piece with its brilliant colors and seemingly bucolic scene. Here, Gauguin evokes a place of worship in a mountainous landscape setting. The foreground is a heap of flowers, perhaps offerings to the gods, but some appear as if they would be prickly and sharp to the touch.

Behind them is a wooden fence with small skulls. A primrose yellow hillside commands the viewer’s attention.

The yellow, according to some interpretations, could be feathers, which symbolize royalty in the Tahitian culture. Galleries alternate between compilations of Gauguin’s work and clusters of exquisitely carved Polynesian ancestor figures, headdresses, weapons, paddles and ornaments. Many of the objects have elaborate patterns on them and the illustrations of body tattoos are exceptional.

The pieces convey a strong sense of movement and radiate energy and vitality. Their influence on Gauguin becomes increasingly obvious as you go deeper into the exhibit and see greater incorporation of motifs from cultural items in the artist’s work.

One gallery,of note, is devoted solely to Gauguin’s woodcuts, which detail his account of his time in Tahiti. The technique used expresses his desire for a more primitive expression.

Gauguin eventually ended up in the Marquesas Islands, leaving Tahiti behind in search of a purer cultural environment.

He is buried there, ironically in the same Catholic cemetery he unwittingly painted in one of his final works, “Women and a White Horse.”

“Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise” runs through April 29th at Seattle Art Museum.

For more information: (206) 654-3100 or

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