Paul Gauguin, “Mahana no atua (Le jour de Dieu)”, 1894, oil on linen canvas, collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Following the exhibition’s Art Institute of Chicago debut, the Musée d’Orsay presents at the Grand Palais 54 paintings, 29 ceramics, 35 sculptures and objects, 14 wood pieces, 67 engravings, and 34 drawings by Paul Gauguin under the numinous title Gauguin the Alchemist. With Gauguin’s paintings a staple of the modern art canon, this show aims to boost appreciation of the artist’s decorative works, sculpture, wood carvings and graphic artworks. As such, it includes the ornate wood panels Gauguin carved for his 1902 “Maison du Jouir (House of Sensual Pleasure)” and, in a gallery of its own, his lavishly illustrated Tahitian diary Noa Noa — a staggeringly beautiful book as well as a show-within-the-show.

There is much to enjoy in Gauguin the Alchemist, especially his sense of harmonious color composition (particularly in the late-paintings from French Polynesia, i.e. Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands), and much to quibble with, starting with the title of the show. Gauguin was an art collector, artist, artisan, and mesmeric erotic myth-maker par excellence, but no alchemist.

Gauguin’s content is all about the naiveté of others. But even a genteel appraisal must address the invisible whistling octopus in the room: the ex-stockbroker’s own sharp-witted skulduggery. Recognitions of the many tentacles of his immoderate imperfections, such as Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s quashing text Going Native, Paul Gauguin and the Invention of the Primitivist Modernist, have certainly shattered the petite ampoule of Gauguin as testicle dream machine. But overly-constricted philistine kerfuffles that drop him down the mise en abîme rabbit hole of artists’ flaws should give us pause as well. Caravaggio, after all, was a murderer. Gauguin’s real flaws (from our perspective) may have even been incorrigibly semi-fictionalized and certainly elaborated in the interests of myth making, à la Jean Genet in his brilliant book The Thief’s Journal.

Take for example Gauguin’s fanciful fetid figuration from 1892, “Manao Tupapau (L’esprit des morts veille)” (Spirit of the Dead Watching), which depicts Teha’amana, his 13 year-old parentally-approved “wife” perchance exuding signs of having been encountered in flagrante delicto.

Paul Gauguin, “Manao Tupapau (L’esprit des morts veille)” (1892)

A looming danse macabre figure makes the painting teem with a quixotic mix of fact and fiction, perhaps designed to provoke a blend of sacrosanct and soft-porn sensation that is imaginative but somewhat spurious. Indeed, exposing the naked body of the young girl to the eyes of the stiff spirit of expiration reminded me of Richard Prince’s poisonous postmodern ploy “Spiritual America” (1983) — a photo appropriation of a 1975 nude photograph by Garry Gross of prepubescent 10-year-old Brooke Shields posing provocatively in an ornate and steamy tub. The original photo was approved by Shields’s mother-manager who allowed it to be published in the soft-porn magazine Sugar n’ Spice as a tactic to get her daughter noticed. It worked.

Going into Polynesia to exorcise his petit-bourgeois trappings, Gauguin imagined a nascent sensual utopia that harks back to an idealized Rousseauian constituency already destroyed by missionaries well before he arrived. Yes, Gauguin daringly (or ignorantly) paints zesty young Tahitian girls from the viewpoint of his construction of the pre-modern “primitive other” — and there are legitimate claims that he portrayed them as acquiescent sex-objects — but, as we see with 1892’s “Parahi te Marae (La où réside le temple)” (The Sacred Mountain), his artistic passions also obeyed other, more mysterious desires. Here he endows a landscape with sensual sacred attributes ‘higher” than those typical of the “civilized” West. I believe he wished to suggest here that by sighting shrouded mystic pleasures a moment of supreme transport is attainable. The tell is the discrete humanoid Tiki sculpture that close looking reveals embedded into the purple stony background. It appears large but distant, smirking but serene. Intricately tangled in the tropical forest, superfluously hidden in plain sight, it suggests both love supreme and imprisonment — where the experience of one is made more intense by the presence of the other. Such a configuration in Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical aesthetics is considered a hyper-abstraction in that it encompasses both the chaotic non-representational abstract ground and representational figuration. The shrouded Tiki suggests the disclosure of a dynamic differentiation immanent in the image, which is its sacred capability to switch from the boundless to the specific and vice versa).

“Parahi te Marae (Là où réside le temple”) (“The Sacred Mountain”) ( 1892); oil on canvas, collection of  the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In general, Gauguin seems to me inspired by the opinion that non-Western cultures are (or were) purer, more likely to be motivated by instinctive movements of the heart, more magically authentic, and thus morally closer to what humanity should be. A place where sexual relations are unrepressed and playful and mutually satisfying. In the Marquesas and Tahiti, boys and girls (even then) were sexually active at puberty and usually initiated into sexuality by an adult, but when Gauguin pulled into Papeete to check-out the piquant sites, he was quickly disappointed. The Tahiti capital was full of his fellow French nationals. Quelle horreur! Tahiti had been discovered by the West in 1767 and the first missionary expeditions were organized only thirty years later. It became a French protectorate in 1842 and by the time of its annexation in 1880, all local traditions and beliefs had been banned. So Gauguin had to partially invent an imaginary ideal Polynesia of free sex, a voluptuous Polynesia-of-the-mind in a land of considerably unrepressed sexual liberation.

Scrutinizing Gauguin as rapacious sexual louche, self-promotional plagiarist and loquacious raconteur may be no fun, but it’s  part of the ongoing meditation on how to regard effectual art made by flawed men. His stimulating vibrant color harmonies as applied to nubile young women — titillatingly laid out on a flat picture plane — most definitely impacted the Western canon of Modern Art. It provided stimulus and succor to Pablo Picasso for his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), for one. But Gauguin’s representations of fully naked young Tahitian girls — as in “L’invocation” (The Invocation, 1903), where he was one of the first Western artists to paint pubic hair, or semi-naked, such as in “Aha Oe Feil?” (“Are You Jealous?”), from 1892 — reflect by our standards an unartistic sexual/racial fantasy gorging itself on patriarchal privileges.

Paul Gaugin, “Aha Oe Feil? (“Are You Jealous?”) (18927), Collection Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Moreover, Gauguin “absorbed” the colorful Post-Impressionist Synthetism of painter and art critic Émile Bernard when they met in Brittany. After studying with the Danish-French artist Camille Pissarro and collecting Impressionist paintings and going broke with the Bourse crash of 1882, Gauguin had turned to painting full-time. He traveled to the rural village pf Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he began looking for people, like the devoutly Christian villagers, who were unconcerned with modern life to paint. Such unconcerned people, in his mind, can be seen in his lovely colorful depictions of simple country workers in Pont-Aven, such as in “Paysannes Bretonnes” (“Farmers of Breton,”), from 1894 and then Arles with, for example, “Laveuses à Arles” (“Washerwomen at Arles”), from 1888. That undulating painting and the splendidly vivacious  “Fête Gloanec” (“Gloanec Feast”), also from 1888 and a feast for the eye make him, for me, a kind of magic realist avant la lettre.

“Fete-Gloanec” (1888), oil on canvas, collection Musée des Beaux Arts d’Orléans (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

When he returned to Paris in 1893 from his first trip to Tahiti, Gauguin was itching to exhibit the paintings he produced there and would do so in November-December that year at Galerie Paul Durand-Ruel (to little financial success). To contextualize these paintings, and while in bed with a broken ankle incurred in a skirmish, he began work on an artist book called Noa Noa: which means something like “very fragrant” (in reference to the scent of Tahitian women mixed with that of their fragrant gardenia tiarés and rosewood, according to Gauguin). Throughout the text he refers to this aroma in wide-ranging poetic fashion whenever savoring his aesthetic experiences. The book, which ended up as abundantly illustrated with photographs, watercolors, clippings, drawings and woodcuts, was based on his travel journal with parts drawn from Franco-Belgian trader, explorer, diplomat and ethnographer Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout’s 1834 book Voyages aux îles du Grand Océan.

As he was unappreciated until well after his death at age 54 following legal troubles for taking the indigenous peoples’ side against French colonialists, the following publication history of the manuscript is tumultuous. Gauguin gave a copy of the unillustrated manuscript to his friend the symbolist poet Charles Morice to work on, but Morice had not yet finished his part of the book when Gauguin left for Tahiti for the last time. On his departure, Gauguin took the first draft with him, which was then only partly illuminated by him, with many pages left blank for Morice’s expected contributions. Eventually Gauguin became dissatisfied with what he had from Morice and severed their collaboration. Some of these blank pages remain in the final 1926 version, but many were later filled in by Gauguin with his beautiful monotypes, collages, watercolors, woodcuts, and photographs, while he was in the Marquesas. Meanwhile, Morice, without Gauguin’s authorization, manipulated his version of the unillustrated text – adding a preface, the chapter Songeries and his own poems – and published this version of Noa Noa in 1901. This version was translated in 1919 by Otto Frederick Theis into English, but a far more charming translation of only Gauguin’s text can be read in Jonathan Griffin’s translation published by Bruno Cassirer in 1961.

In 1903 Gauguin’s now lavishly illustrated manuscript had returned to France with the poet Victor Segalen, who had purchased it at auction following Gauguin’s death that year. Segalen gave it to Gauguin’s consigned correspondent, the painter George-Daniel de Monfreid, who in 1927 donated it to the Louvre. It is included in the Gauguin the Alchemist show, but closed, with projected photographed pages on rotating view. Based on this manuscript, in 1924, the Parisian publisher Georges Crès made an edition of Noa Noa that contained wood engravings by Monfreid, based on drawings by Gauguin.

In 1926 a superb facsimile of Noa Noa was created by the German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe and published in collaboration with R. Piper & Co in an edition of 320. It contains Gauguin’s original handsome handwritten text, and all of Gauguin’s sumptuous images are reproduced by collotype. I was fortunate to have held in my hands and carefully examined copy #140 of this rare facsimile that is in the collection of the French artist and writer Jean-Charles Blanc. He has allowed Hyperallergic to publish his photographs of some quintessential pages from it here.

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Numbered page from Noa Noa (1926), photo by Jean-Charles Blanc

Gauguin the Alchemist continues through January 22 at the Grand Palais (3, Avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris).

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...