WITH GAUGUIN: VOYAGE TO PARADISE, the latest installment of the Jean & Alfred Goldstein Exhibition Series at Selby Gardens, visitors are transported to a tropical Tahitian wonderland, complete with Polynesian plantscapes, a fishing village of bamboo huts and coconut palms, looming tikis in the fern garden, hand-carved masks on the rainforest rock wall and dugout canoes overflowing with orchids in the Conservatory. And in the Payne Mansion, through original prints, woodcuts and lithographs, Selby Gardens celebrates the wandering French post-impressionist painter who inspired it all—Paul Gauguin. SRQ sat down with Selby Gardens Curator-at-Large Dr. Carol Ockman to talk the politics of portraiture, radical color and the myth of Gauguin.

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Why Gauguin?  Ockman: Gauguin is a natural because his work is all about light and color. And he’s an important maker in terms of what he does with color, which is a very big issue in the late 19th century. He’s the earliest of this group of artists that we’ve studied so far, and, importantly, he spent a lot of time in tropical environments, the most well-known of which would be Tahiti. He was attracted by places that had this component, whether it be true or partially mythic, of paradise. And since all who inhabit Sarasota live in a paradise, where the climate is not unlike these places Gauguin went, we thought he’d be perfect. We have the light, we have the color, we have the botanicals.

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Would we say Gauguin found nature particularly inspiring? He’s not the only one. A really interesting dimension of the late 19th century is how many modernist artists actually leave the city. Gauguin is one, Van Gogh is another, you can say that Monet is one. People are looking for an escape from an increasingly industrialized and techno society. And it continues into the 20th century. Chagall went to the Riviera, Matisse went to the Riviera,  ton of artists went to the Riviera. Some went to seek refuge during World War II, but some went much earlier.


So what sets Gauguin apart? He had a certain wanderlust that separated him from his contemporaries. I don’t think anybody as famous as an artist traveled that much at this time. He actually had a stint with the merchant marine. He traveled around the world. He went to Antarctica. He was everywhere.


Like an explorer. Part of the allure is that he did go so far away. And so he inserts himself in this discourse of discovery, of voyaging, which goes back to Captain Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville and this notion of exploring that’s very tied to ownership and claiming. Captain Cook had illustrators on his voyages. And that’s how we first knew Polynesia. Gauguin, in a way, fits into that, because he goes to Tahiti at the expense of the French government, to kind of record what he sees.

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How do you parse that line between appreciation and celebration, and exploitation or appropriation? That’s a big question. And the interpretations of Gauguin range widely. There are a lot of myths that have grown up around him and he played his part in cultivating those myths. In his writings, for example, he described himself as a “savage.” When you’re reading his journal and you read something like that, and then you look at his paintings, particularly at his self portraits, he allies himself in a way with the savage and the primitive and the misunderstood and the tormented.


The tortured artist. These are myths that have a history in France already. They go back to Romanticism. It’s not like Gauguin is completely new—he’s shaped by history, as we all are. So he looked back to that tradition of the artist as somehow being misunderstood by the bourgeois public. Van Gogh bought into that too, but his myth is different. Gauguin’s ties him to notions of savagery, primitivism, something earlier, simpler, more natural than what we have now. And the exotic, because he goes to Polynesia and he stays there. He spends a total of eight years there, he dies there, he’s buriedthere on the Marquesas Islands.

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But not everyone bought into the myth? There are many, many people who disagree, who think, “Maybe he behaved in a brash manner, but this is also an educated European man. He’s born in Paris, he lives a good deal of his life there.” And there are certain tensions there. There are tensions between his being somebody who comes at the service of a colonial government. Tahiti was a colony by the time Gauguin gets there. The island had been already completely transformed by the colonial presence, by the missionaries. And so, Gauguin actually is painting and making prints and making wood-carvings, that in some ways show a Tahiti that had already disappeared.


But, importantly, he’s not an ethnographer. He’s not an ethnographer. Not at all. Some people maybe want to think that he is—that’s highly contested. And people who work on the Pacific would have categorically said that’s not what it is. There’s a dimension of it, but that’s not the whole thing. His engagement with radical form, radical color, is something that works with what he saw, but also trumps what he saw.

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What do you mean by radical color? In the late 19th century, all of the great artists—Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Cezanne—are working with color and pure hues like primary colors: red, blue and yellow. They’re working a lot with those at their most saturated, so that they’re really intense. The reddest red, the bluest blue, the yellowest yellow. And they’re doing this because they believe that color in its own light can be expressive. Gauguin does something that is somewhat different. He works a lot with mixed hues, tertiary hues. And his colors tend to be often quite brooding.


Brooding colors for a tropical landscape? In a way that Van Gogh is not, that Seurat is not, Gauguin’s more of a symbolist, working with the expressive properties, how what we don’t see might be used to express what we see. Gauguin is interested in conveying the felt as well as the seen. He was drawn to that palate because he wanted people to feel the power of color as an expressive means. And he wanted to do the same thing with line. And in this, he was completely in harmony with his generation of vanguard artists.

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What of Gauguin’s work will audiences see? We’ve concentrated on the prints. Most of these are woodcuts; some are wood engravings. Actually, Gauguin is so experimental as a printmaker, that he will blur the boundaries. I’ve actually borrowed works from collections where they can’t say that it’s a woodcut or a wood engraving.


How does that happen?  He combines the two techniques so that they fuse together. He’s experimenting, and using processes that involve carving into a wood block, which is woodcut, but also techniques that are more related to lithography, which are about drawing on the surface. He’ll do both. And he’ll even incorporate techniques from painting.


Is that why you wanted to highlight them? They also employ some of the same vocabulary of his other works, like simplified direct expression. He uses a lot of very dark and bright white contrast. Sometimes the work is so dark you can barely see what he’s depicting. Sometimes he makes the forms so vague that he creates this extra sense of mystery, which is great in terms of thinking about exotic lands and the unknown.


How did Gauguin’s works connect what he saw with where he came from? They blend motifs that come from the West and Anglo-European imagery with Polynesian imagery. So he’s showing us customs or activities of Tahitian people, and then he grafts onto them something like the story of Adam and Eve. We have in one of the prints a “Tahitian Eve.” He changes the iconography. There’s not an apple; there’s a flower. And there’s not a serpent; there’s a huge scary lizard. There’s a kind of hybridity. We also have a print whose subject is the Rape of Europa. Well that subject comes from Western mythology; it doesn’t come from Tahitian belief. But he has Tahitian gods in his print.

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What is he trying to say with this blending? He’s translating what he knows with what he is encountering. Those are two very different things. Nobody’s vision is completely new. It’s always bound up with the culture from which one comes. But he’s really trying, on some level, to show us something that we don’t know. He’s trying to show us something that used to be typical of Tahiti, to the extent that he’s able.


So, in a way, it’s always Gauguin’s Tahiti, not just Tahiti. He’s still an outside observer. He’s both those things. He’s inside and outside. And people who come from elsewhere can’t ever really be indigenous.