For veterans of AP Art History who think they know everything there is to know about Paul Gauguin, think again. The Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit, “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” challenges preconceived notions of the artist’s technique and collection by turning viewers’ attention to lesser known works, proving that Gauguin was more than a wandering French expatriate who lived in Tahiti and fought with one Vincent Van Gogh.
Apart from the new, darker narrative presented in this exhibit, “Metamorphoses” collects a number of works that have never been seen before at the MoMA or in the United States.
Much like Gauguin’s own style, the rooms in the exhibit are partitioned by loose divides, allowing viewers to move freely among the pieces, which range from woodcuts to oil transfer drawings. The layout of the room forces viewers to truly engage with all works in the collection and ultimately leaves them with a better understanding of the artist’s corpus.
“The difference with Gauguin is that all his prints are different. To truly understand his corpus of work, you have to consider all the different impressions,” Starr Figura, a curator of drawings and prints and one of the curators heading “Metamorphoses,” said.
“Metamorphoses” focuses not on Gauguin’s paintings—for which he is primarily known—but on his oft-overlooked prints. The MoMA collected several editions within Gauguin’s print series, letting viewers see the evolution of Gauguin’s prints for themselves. These prints draw attention to Gauguin’s interest in transformation and evolution, both in content and in technique. In “Te Nave Nave Fenua,” for example, which is featured in the first room of the exhibit, Gauguin purposefully offset the print to create a blurry, ethereal atmosphere that sharply contrasts the foreground: an overly simplistic form of a woman.
These prints greet the viewers as soon as they enter the exhibit. Directly in front of the entrance is the Volpini Suite, Gauguin’s first attempt at printmaking. Also in the first room is the Vollard Suite, another series of Gauguin’s prints. In a few cases, like the “Rape of Europa,” the curators were able to procure the actual blocks used to make the prints.
The exhibit showcases the wide variety of mediums with which Gauguin worked. Outside of the prints, “Metamorphoses” has several wood sculptures. Gauguin’s own favorite sculpture, a small wood carving called “Oviri (Savage),” is located just before the entrance to the last room, in front of a number of prints on the same subject. “Oviri” exemplifies Gauguin’s obsession with primitivism, largely inspired by his time in Tahiti. The sculpture also highlights his fascination with a few key themes, including the distinctions between primitivism and savagery, and idealism and corruption.
“What strikes me personally is how fresh, vibrant, and powerful these works are,” Peter Reed, senior deputy for curatorial affairs at the MoMA, said of the exhibit.
To underscore the theme of transformation and evolution, in the final room of the exhibit, the curators displayed a number of Gauguin’s oil transfer drawings on pedestals in the center of the room, allowing museumgoers to walk around the piece and see the initial layer and the final product after the ink was transferred. “Metamorphoses” also features several technological elements that provide more detailed accounts of each piece. In the final section of the exhibit, the curators included a small iPad that described how Gauguin created oil transfer drawings, using a technique he pioneered that involves layering colors.
“There is a side to him outside of painting that is darker in his prints,” Figura said of Gauguin. “Throughout the exhibit, you get a sense of how experimental he really was.”
“Gauguin: Metamorphoses” runs from March 8 to June 8 at the Museum of Modern Art. Admission is free with a Columbia ID.