Gauguin and Impressionism

Gauguin and Impressionism

December 18, 2005 to March 26, 2006

In the winter of 2005/06, the Kimbell Art Museum presented Gauguin and Impressionism, the first-ever comprehensive survey of Paul Gauguin’s early career. The exhibition was on view at the Kimbell—its only American venue—from December 18, 2005, to March 26, 2006.

All of the great French artists normally known as Post-Impressionists exhibited with the Impressionists, but the involvement of Cézanne and Seurat in the movement was slight compared to that of Gauguin. He contributed to five of the eight Impressionist exhibitions—more than either Renoir or Sisley—and was the most active artist-collector of Impressionist paintings after Caillebotte. Gauguin and Impressionism demonstrated both that he was an Impressionist and that he was a brilliant and highly original one.

The exhibition and its scholarly catalogue dealt with the full range of the artist’s participation in the Impressionist movement: the paintings he submitted to the Impressionist exhibitions, the ways in which his extensive private collection inspired his own work, and his interactions with Pissarro, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and other members of the Impressionist group. Presenting the subtle and beautiful works of roughly the first half of Gauguin’s career—from 1875 to 1887—the exhibition confirmed the increasing appreciation of the young Gauguin’s importance as an Impressionist painter, as well as his status, together with Degas, as the most innovative sculptor of the group.

Commented Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “It is rare today that an exhibition on an artist as well known and popular as Gauguin can claim to present a largely unknown but central aspect of his achievement. Yet it is just this sort of revelation that Gauguin and Impressionism promises to bring, spotlighting for the first time his critical impact as a painter and sculptor of Impressionism, and bringing together nearly all of the major works he presented in the group’s exhibitions. These years represent Gauguin at his most searching, challenging, and vigorous, responding as he was to the challenge of his fellow Impressionists’ innovations. It is fascinating to see how many of the distinctive qualities of the later Gauguin from the Pacific-including his boldly original approach to composition and his predilection for areas of bright, almost flat, color-emerge already in this period. The exhibition marks a major step forward in scholarship and, equally importantly, does so through an experience that is a rare delight for the eye.”

Gauguin and Impressionism was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum and the Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen, and was curated jointly by Dr. Richard R. Brettell, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Impressionism and modern painting, and Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, director of the Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Among his many distinguished contributions to the study of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Dr. Brettell was one of the organizers of the monumental Gauguin retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1988-89. Fonsmark has made a particular study of Gauguin’s sculpture and ceramics, and in 1996 published a scholarly catalogue of the ceramics at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where she was formerly a curator.

Gauguin’s Nave Nave Mahana (Delightful Day) of 1896, today the most important Gauguin in a French public collection, was a “guest of honor” at the Kimbell throughout Gauguin and Impressionism, on loan from the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon. This masterpiece of the artist’s second stay in Tahiti gave visitors to the exhibition the opportunity to see first-hand where Gauguin’s restless experimentation and intense ambition within the avant-garde would ultimately lead him.

Paul Gauguin was introduced to the Impressionist circle by Camille Pissarro and contributed important works to five of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1880 and 1886. During these years he transformed himself from an amateur artist working as a banker-stockbroker into a full-fledged professional, from a family man into a solitary searcher after artistic, moral, and spiritual truths.

When Gauguin began his painting career, Impressionism was still in the full bloom of youth and the dominant avant-garde movement in French art. At first, as though retracing the artistic road that had led to the movement, the young Gauguin turned for guidance and inspiration to its precursors, particularly Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Although he had been developing a distinctively modern style since 1873, it was only in 1879 that he began to develop a truly Impressionist technique, using brushstrokes applied with apparent speed and spontaneity to record scenes from modern life and fleeting effects of light and weather. He did so under the tutelage of Pissarro, his first real teacher and the only one whose guidance he accepted, and seems to have had no difficulty assimilating what the older artist taught him. In his Impressionist works Gauguin grappled with the thorniest issues debated by the French avant-garde in the cafés of Paris and its suburbs in the 1870s and 1880s. No member of the Impressionist group created works as enigmatic or as wide-ranging, both artistically and emotionally. What Gauguin did was ceaselessly to question the nature of Impressionism itself. He asked questions of a movement that was itself always asking questions about the nature and role of art in modern society.

Gauguin’s sculptural works are crucial to the understanding of his development during his Impressionist period, and indeed his activities in this area were often even more searching and radical than his early paintings. After making his debut with a couple of traditional marble busts, he moved on to a revolutionary series of woodcarvings—made between 1880 and 1884, often in a “dialogue” with Degas—in which he experimented with deliberate stylization, mixed materials, and polychromy. While Degas seems to have exhibited only one sculpture in his lifetime (the famous Little Dancer Aged Fourteen), Gauguin showed three-dimensional works at all the Impressionist exhibitions in which he participated (1879, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1886). His ceramics, which he staunchly regarded as sculpture rather than decorative art, were the most revolutionary works of all. In the winter of 1886-87, inspired by the primal, unspoiled qualities that he found in Oriental and Precolumbian pottery, he created a number of ceramics in which he challenged the decadent eclecticism into which he thought the potter’s art had fallen in the West. He described these boldly innovative works as the results of “my great madness.”

Gauguin and Impressionism followed Gauguin’s career to 1887, the year after the final Impressionist exhibition, when—working far from Paris, in Brittany and Martinique—he began the artistic transformations through which he became the great Post-Impressionist with whom we are more familiar today, the creator of “primitive” and exotic images replete with symbolic meaning. The achievements of his later career in the South Seas have, until recently, overshadowed the body of extraordinarily subtle and beautiful works that he produced earlier. The exhibition offered an overdue reassessment and celebration of his involvement with the Impressionist movement.

Gauguin and Impressionism brought together a fuller and more spectacular selection of works from this period of his career than ever before. It comprised over 50 paintings and 15 sculptures and ceramics on loan from museums and private collections around the world. They included a remarkable group of works from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, among them the most ambitious and intriguing of the early works, the Nude Study (Woman Sewing) of 1880. When Gauguin showed this large figure painting in the Impressionist exhibition of 1881, he could never have suspected that the great writer Joris-Karl Huysmans would make it the subject of a long and passionate essay—the most elaborate piece of writing inspired by a single work in any of the Impressionist exhibitions, even including Seurat’s A Sunday On La Grande Jatte (Art Institute of Chicago) and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (Phillips Collection, Washington). It made Gauguin’s career as an Impressionist and had a profound effect on the work of artists like Pissarro and Renoir, whose figure paintings were to dominate the Impressionist exhibition of the following year.

Other lenders to the exhibition included the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Rudolf Staechelin Family Foundation, Basel; the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo; the Fine Arts Museum, Budapest, and The Kelton Foundation, California.

Gauguin and Impressionism was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum and the Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. It was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Prior to its presentation at the Kimbell, Gauguin and Impressionism was the inaugural exhibition in the newly built exhibition galleries at Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen (August 25-November 20, 2005).

The lavishly illustrated catalogue, co-authored by curators Brettell and Fonsmark, was published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum and the Ordrupgaard. Admission prices at the Kimbell Art Museum were $12 for adults, $10 for seniors age 60 and over and students with ID, and $8 for children between 6 and 11. Children under 6 were free, as were museum members. An Acoustiguide audio tour was available for $4 ($3 for museum members). Admission prices were half-off on Tuesdays (not applicable to the Acoustiguide audio tour).

Caption: Paul Gauguin, Beach, Dieppe (detail), 1885, oil on canvas. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. WII 178