On Gauguin

Sculpture and Ceramics of Paul Gauguin

by Christopher Gray
Johns Hopkins, 330, 19 color plates, 390 illus. pp., $22.50

Among the plethora of lavish books on art, whose weight, size, and number of illustrations is the large wrapping of a very small gift, it is a pleasure to come upon one that is both elegant and serious. It has been impeccably produced by The Johns Hopkins Press; the black and white illustrations are fine; and although one can always ask for more color plates, the nineteen included are enough to give the look and feel of Gauguin’s sculptured surfaces.

Mr. Gray has a three-fold intention: to establish a catalogue raisonée of Gauguin’s sculpture; to interpret and emphasize the importance of his symbolism; and to establish Gauguin as a sculptor of first rank, whose work in clay and wood should be given the recognition accorded to his painting.

In the first of these tasks he has succeeded admirably. Merete Bodelson’s book, published in 1960, covered only a portion of the ceramics. Now we have a complete and careful catalogue of all the sculpture: clay, stone, bronze, and wood. Since the works in clay (whether specifically “pots” or not) were largely confined to Gauguin’s early years before his South Sea journeys, this extension is particularly important. For the first time we have a view of all the sculpture. This catalogue is meticulous and restrained, and Gray argues matters of dating and attribution with great care. He is exhaustive in his discussion of the techniques of firing and glazing, and his description of the different woods Gauguin employed. One admires his thoroughness and hesitates to take issue with his conclusions. I would only suggest that he has been too cautious in his judgments on some of the doubtful works. Gauguin could not, for example, have reproduced the two undistinguished African figurines, nor could he have been guilty of perpetrating the standing Figure with Egyptian Head. These, and some others, are not merely instances of those temporary lapses from which even great artists suffer; they are stylistically impossible for Gauguin.

Back in the days when the history of modern painting seemed simple, and the road from impressionism to modernism a straight four-lane highway down which Cézanne, Seurat and Van Gogh drove side by side with Gauguin, his role was clear. He was a decorator with a sense of color and fluid contour, but not much sense for form; a simplifier and stylizer; an intuitive artist, self-taught, unsubtle, and strong. More recently, along with an interest in the symbolism of the Eighties and Nineties generally, and an increasing concern with the symbolic meanings of modern art as a whole, Gauguin’s ideas have been scrutinized in some detail. The intentions of such “program pictures” as Whence Do We Come, or Nevermore have been analyzed, and less obvious “programs” discovered or suspected in pictures like Fa Iheihe or The I dol. Gray continues these researches into iconographic meanings with great subtlety, pointing out the component symbols of the pendant reliefs, Soyez Amoureuses and Soyez Mystérieuses, discovering the sources in legend of …

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