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Vol. LXIV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
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Princeton University Art Museum
The Power of Darkness: Gauguin’s Noa Noa Suite

Stuart Mitchner

I have never made a single cut with the knife into this branch of rosewood, that I did not each time more powerfully breathe in the perfume of victory and rejuvenation: noa, noa!

Paul Gauguin, from Noa Noa

One of the gloomier images in the catalogue accompanying the University Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints,” is Paul Signac’s crayon sketch of rue Vercingétroix, where Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) had his last Paris studio. From the look of it, this could be among those streets Balzac finds “in as much disrepute as any man branded with infamy.” The name itself has a sinister music, a four-syllable sword-thrust; in fact it refers to a Gallic warrior whose “very name seemed to be made to generate terror,” according to the Roman historian Florian.

A photograph of 6 rue Vercingétroix in David Sweetman’s biography Paul Gauguin (Simon & Schuster 1995) shows a building distinctly lacking in the picturesque qualities associated with Parisian architecture. Gauguin must have enjoyed the effect this bland, unpromising exterior had on visitors to the radiant Tahitian fantasy hidden within. Curator Alastair Wright’s essay “Paradise Lost,” included in the catalogue along with co-curator Calvin Brown’s “Paradise Remembered,” describes one such visit by critics and fellow painters on a cold December day in 1894: “The glass panel of the plain wooden door gave nothing away, for it was rendered opaque by yellow paint smeared on its inner surface. But as it opened, the visitors suddenly found themselves… transported from the Naturalist terrain of damp gray Parisian streets to a fantasized evocation of the exotic,” the windows covered to shut out daylight, “a mulatto woman… pulling aside a hanging tapestry to reveal the studio beyond” with its bright yellow walls, on which the “glowing canvases” brought back from Tahiti were hung.

Not all visitors were seduced by this faux tropical paradise. In refusing to introduce the catalogue for the sale held prior to Gauguin’s return to Tahiti in early 1895, Swedish dramatist August Strindberg wrote: “I cannot understand your art and I cannot like it. I have no grasp of your art, which is now exclusively Tahitian.” After couching the seeming rebuff in terms sure to please an artist “who delights in the antipathy [his work] arouses,” Strindberg referred to “the walls of your studio” and “that confused mass of pictures, flooded with sunshine, which pursued me last night in my dreams. I saw trees such as no botanist would ever discover, animals the existence of which had never been suspected by Cuvier, and men whom you alone could have created….’Monsieur,’ I said in my dream, ‘you have created a new heaven and a new earth, but I do not enjoy myself in the midst of your creation. It is too sun-drenched for me, who enjoy the play of light and shade.’”

Gauguin was no doubt delighted by this celebration in the guise of a rejection, particularly the mythic image of “Gauguin, the savage, who hates a whimpering civilization, a sort of Titan who, jealous of the Creator, makes in his leisure hours his own little creation… who abjures and defies, preferring to see the heavens red rather than blue with the crowd.” At this point Strindberg slyly admits that “since I have warmed up as I write I am beginning to have a certain understanding of the art of Gauguin.”

In the end, Gauguin not only used Strindberg’s letter as a preface for his catalogue, he included the text in his Intimate Journals (1923; Dover 1997, translated by Van Wyck Brooks), from which these passages are taken.

Dark Creation

You have to wonder where Strindberg was when, as recounted in Alastair Wright’s essay, Gauguin’s guests were shown “a series of small, dark prints unlike anything the artist had made before.” As if spawned by the dark source of that “too sun-drenched” creation, the prints, freshly made versions of those displayed in “Paradise Remembered,” were passed from hand to hand, forming “a somber foil to the iridescent paintings they accompanied.” It was as if Gauguin had expressly created a nocturnal antithesis to the paintings that Strindberg found so off-putting.

According to David Sweetman’s biography, Gauguin made the prints from ten box-wood blocks, intending to “play on the fact that wood-block engraving was more a branch of sculpture than of drawing or painting.” His “aggressive gouging and scoring of the wood, deliberately leaving every sign that he had done so,” was nothing less than revolutionary: “Gauguin put the mark of individual personality into the craft and made it an art.” When he began to pull prints from the block, for example, “instead of trying to avoid the gouged-out areas, he actually used his fingers to force the paper into the spaces, thus printing the rims of the tiny gulleys where his gouging tool… had been at work.”

The first print Sweetman describes “has a bizarre monster, part insect, part animal, part fish, in the foreground, leaving the impression that Gauguin was creating a wild and fanciful universe of his own.” The work in question, L’Univers est créé (The Universe Is Created), is the Princeton exhibition’s dominant image. There are seven versions of it and it’s featured on both the front and back cover of the catalogue (the museum’s acquisition of an early proof inspired the exhibition). Again, one wonders if this chaotic phantasmagoria and the prevailing darkness of the other prints was Gauguin’s answer to Strindberg’s critique of his sunshine-flooded art.

Calvin Brown gives particular attention to what seems to be the most complete proof of L’Univers est créé (no. 22 in the catalogue), which he says derives “from a pastiche of small watercolor illustrations” from the artist’s two Tahitian notebooks. This impression of a universe divided “between air, sea, land, and all living things,… a mysterious swirling genesis” lesser gods are observing from above, was produced by Gauguin’s “selectively adding touches of color to the composition. After heavily inking the block, he carefully lifted ink from the top half of the image to leave a misty tone over the waves, and he wiped the block as a monoype to define the seated woman and the shell surrounding [the supreme god] Ta’aroa.”

According to the curator, this version of L’Univers est créé was purchased by Edgar Degas at the rue Vercingétroix studio exhibition in December 1894. That this particular print was favored by Gauguin is indicated by the fact that it was “trimmed to the block and laid down in a distinctive blue-geen mount” when displayed for “friends and critics at that momentous showing.”

His Range

You don’t have to look far in the online world to appreciate the range of Gauguin’s influence as an artist, not to mention his notoriety as a self-confessed rapist whose last home in Tahiti had a carved wood panel over the door reading “Maison du Jouir” or House of Pleasure, its walls covered with pornographic photographs bought at Port Said while Gauguin allegedly hobbled around inside naked, leaning on a phallic walking stick. This bizarre caricature is offset by striking self-portraits like the one used for the cover of Sweetman’s biography. You can see a barelegged, barefoot Gauguin playing the harmonium in a photograph by Alphonse Mucha included in the Princeton catalogue, or as shown here, lounging in a Breton waistcoat, his chin in his hand, looking like Robert Louis Stevenson’s robust, wily older brother in a photograph taken by illustrator Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel in 1891. Then of course there’s Hollywood’s version, Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life (1956) slouching into Arles with his bag slung over his shoulder, so cool, so together, as he suffers Kirk Douglas-Van Gogh’s hysterical welcome to the digs they’ll be sharing. Quinn is only in the film eight minutes, long enough to earn him an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, such is the force of Gauguin’s presence even in a tinseltown travesty.

Noa Noa

For Gauguin “Noa Noa” means something more than “fragrant,” more than the sensory truth he celebrates in the book of the same name, first defining it as “a mingled perfume, half animal, half vegetable” emanating from Tahitian women: “the perfume of their blood and of the gardenias — tiaré — which they all wore in their hair.” Still more important is the phrase’s inspirational connection with his art, as in the “perfume of victory and rejuvenation” he finds in the hunk of rosewood from which he carved works like Te fare amu (The House for Eating), one of the highlights of the Museum’s permanent collection and the piece chosen to conclude the exhibit.

“Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints” will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 2, 2011. The Museum is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Museum will be closed November 25; December 24, 25, and 31, 2010; and January 1, 2011. Admission is always free.

For further information, call (609)258-3788.

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