Gauguin: What was he looking for?

Tahitian Woman With a Flower (Vahine no te Tiare: 1891) is the first painting that the infamous French painter Paul Gauguin sent out from Tahiti, where he'd hoped to find a new home. It was his letter to the world.

The world, it turns out, did not care. Many years flipped by before this stunning portrait found a buyer.

But we do care, hundreds of years later, about this young woman, her black hair caught in a single braid. She holds an orange flower, stares off into the distance, chaste in a blue smock dress with white lace collar and cuffs. The artist said she was not beautiful, but was beautiful in her strength. 

I feel so lucky because this week I got to see "Gauguin and Polynesia: Elusive Paradise" at the Seattle Art Museum.  

I've visited the Gauguin museum in Tahiti, a dreary place, with nothing to show but copies of paintings long since snapped up by European buyers. The artist himself died penniless, but his canvases are now worth millions. Such is the fate of the avant-garde.

Seattle is the show's only stop in the U.S. and it would be worth the airfare just to see 60 examples of Gaugin's work, including sculptures, wood-carvings, self-portraits, and even sketchbooks. You can also see many charming examples of the Polynesian art that influenced him, as did the people. Even the bodies of the warriors, tattooed from head to foot, were works of art.

Like so many of us, Gauguin was plagued with wanderlust. An addiction in conflict with the desire to create something lasting, to be somebody in the world. He was always looking for "something real," but when he found it, he quickly grew tired.

For a woman it's hard not to see his portrayals of beautiful young girls as exploitative, hard not to view his bedding of them without "ambivalence and resentment" (an observation I overheard a woman make in the museum). And yet, he never portrayed Polynesian women as mere sex objects. Just look into their eyes, the sadness around their mouths. Observe their staid cotten clothes, the result of colonization. Did he ever paint a woman who smiled?

But it's not the sadness that's stayed with me all week, after seeing this spectacular show. No, it's the gorgeous colors, the once-in-a-lifetime brushstrokes, the marvelous carvings and sheer talent.
Who knew Gauguin so yearned for European flowers (marigolds, irises, lilies) that he planted a garden in Tahiti? Or that he always intended to reunite with his family, the one he abandoned in France to chase a Polynesian dream?

How I'd love to own my favorite Gauguin landscape, Parahi te Marae (The Sacred Mountain), 1892, which I posted above. The show will be at SAM until April 29, 2012. Don't miss it.