SAN FRANCISCO — There is a provocation in the title of the De Young Museum’s show “Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey.” The exhibition is built around works by the French artist lent by the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, and the De Young’s collection of native art from New Zealand, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. The apparent goal of this often diffuse and unfocused survey is to stress the more conventional side of Paul Gauguin, his bourgeois leanings, his marriage to a mistreated but supportive Danish wife, and his preoccupation with spiritual questions, as inflected by the tension between his Catholic education and the cultures he encountered while sequestered on the islands of the South Pacific.
But wait: A spiritual journey? Shouldn’t that rather be “a sensual journey,” given Gauguin’s flight from tradition, his sexual affairs with teenage girls and his search for the “savage” in far-flung French colonies, all embodied in the words he carved on the hut he had built for himself on the island of Hiva Oa, “House of Pleasure”? The exhibition would like to argue otherwise, underscoring what’s often overlooked in the well-mythologized life of Gauguin, the ordinary human sentiments and even frailties of a man who was a stockbroker before he reinvented himself as an artist and contrarian.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t come together. The Glyptotek has an extensive collection of works by Gauguin, and more than 60 of the artist’s paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics and sculpture are on view in this exhibition, which offers a satisfying overview of Gauguin’s career, from an early pencil sketch of his wife, Mette Gad, to journeyman paintings in a generic, impressionist style, to experimental ceramic pieces, which use human forms to create idiosyncratic and grotesque vessels, and several key works of his late period, full of color, flat forms, and cryptic references to native or invented myths and cosmologies. But the happy chance to show a tranche of Gauguin pieces somehow morphed into an exhibition about his putative “spiritual journey,” which is adumbrated but not proved.
To support a show about Gauguin’s spiritual leanings, the curators would have needed to borrow more of his works that directly engage spiritual matters and focus less on the “dialogues” they suggest between Pacific and Maori art and Gauguin’s oeuvre. The latter claim — that Gauguin was inspired by the art he discovered both on his travels and in international expositions he saw while still based in Europe — is easily made, but also a bit of a dead end. The correspondences are obvious, and, for a moment, intriguing. However, as with some many juxtapositions billed as a “conversation” or “dialogue,” there isn’t, in fact, much back-and-forth after one notices superficial similarities. Tiki figures from the Marquesas Islands seem to recur with some kind of demonic power in Gauguin’s work, but little is made of that connection. Other carved figures are lovely to look at but feel, at best, tangential to the larger themes of the exhibition.
Meanwhile, major paintings (referenced in the catalogue essays) in which Gauguin engaged with the “primitive” Christianity of Brittany (where he painted during various visits in the 1880s and ’90s), or fusing Christian and Pacific iconographies for a syncretic mythology of his own making, aren’t on view. This would have required a more extensive effort at gathering works from beyond the Glyptotek’s holdings, such as the works seen in the National Gallery’s 2011 exhibition, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” which examined Gauguin’s spiritual subject matter in greater depth.
In the end, it isn’t clear that Gauguin took much of a spiritual journey. Gauguin was the rare artist who acted upon what was a common motif of intellectual life in late 19th-century Europe, a sense of spiritual exhaustion and anomie. He went in search of what he called the “savage,” which was a vague feeling that somehow life elsewhere — outside of Europe, or in the idealized past — was richer, earthier and more full of vibrant sensations, which would reawaken feelings and ideas that had gone dormant in “civilized” man. But he was also an imagemaker in search of material, visual stuff that could be put to use in advancing his career in the competitive avant-garde of the fin-de-siècle art market.
In Tahiti, and later in the Marquesas Islands, he was chagrined to find that colonization and the depredations of Christian missionaries had already erased much of the “savage” he had sought. Alcoholism probably contributed to his sense of emotional dullness and spiritual ennui. Gauguin did manage to send back some stunning paintings, and this exhibition gives viewers a good sense of his creative restlessness and risk-taking from earlier chapters in his career. He was also thinking and writing about Catholicism and in argument with the Catholic regime of sexual surveillance, which remains vital to the Church’s identity even today. But Gauguin’s spiritual journey feels a bit more like a spiritual fantasy life, a roue’s ideal of enlightenment through heightened sensation and pleasure.
The exhibition covers a lot of territory, with chapters devoted to Gad’s efforts to support her itinerant husband’s career, Gauguin’s efforts to develop an artistic vision independent of artists such as Camille Pissarro (who was skeptical about Gauguin’s “poaching” and “stealing from the savages in Oceania”), as well his relationships with young girls while living abroad. It includes a few spectacular pieces, such as the vibrant 1891 “Tahitian Woman With a Flower” and intricate Maori carvings from the De Young collection. And it features a video by the Samoan-based artist Yuki Kihara, “First Impressions: Paul Gauguin,” which encapsulates the ambivalence many viewers today feel about Gauguin’s art.
Kihara’s work documents a conversation among a small group of Fa’afafine friends from Samoa, “third gender” people who belong to their culture’s indigenous LGBT or queer minority. The film documents their reaction to paintings by Gauguin, from bemused indifference to pointed remarks about the colonial objectification of the colonized other. The paintings hold no particular status to the Samoan Fa’afafine, and they treat Gauguin’s work just as they would any other image they might encounter, without the hierarchical authority of “art” influencing their judgment.
It’s a silly, engaging and sometimes enlightening effort to take Gauguin off his pedestal, and a pleasant surprise after a show that seems mostly content to leave him there.
Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey Through April 7 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. deyoung.famsf.org.