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Published: Friday, February 17, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

SAM show explores what Gauguin found in Polynesia

  • "Women and a White Horse" (1903), oil on canvas.

    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

    "Women and a White Horse" (1903), oil on canvas.

  • "Vahine no te Tiare (Tahitian Woman with a Flower),"
1891, oil on canvas.

    Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

    "Vahine no te Tiare (Tahitian Woman with a Flower)," 1891, oil on canvas.

  • "Faaturuma (Melancholic)" (1891), oil on canvas.

    Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

    "Faaturuma (Melancholic)" (1891), oil on canvas.

Paul Gauguin always seemed to be searching for something. That elusive primitive life, perhaps.
But whether his searching was spiritually fruitful or not, Gauguin rewarded the rest of the world with beauty and brilliance in the form of paintings, sculptures and etchings.
A craftsman of symbolism and a celebrated master in the post-impressionist movement, Gauguin, his art and his complicated life's search is on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum in "Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise."
SAM is the only U.S. stop for this exhibit, which includes works on loan from some of the world's finest museums and private collections.
The show includes about 60 of Gauguin's paintings, sculptures and works on paper. The exhibit also showcases 60 major examples of Polynesian sculpture that helped propel Gauguin's search for the exotic.
SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa said when it comes to Gauguin, "you don't want to simplify."
"He's an interesting and complex character," Ishikawa said during a recent tour of the exhibit.
Gauguin, who was once a stockbroker with a wife and five children, left Europe in the 1890s for an exotic life in Polynesia. But people must remember that Gauguin was one of the most traveled people of his time before leaving his family, a fact that fueled his lust to keep moving, Ishikawa said.
He moved to Peru with his family when he was just a child. As he grew up, Gauguin traveled as a merchant marine and when he was in the navy.
"He was always looking for something real," Ishikawa said.
This Gauguin exhibit includes numerous paintings in which Gauguin created the environment he had hoped to find.
Gauguin's search for his perfect environment took him to French Polynesia: a two-year stay in Tahiti beginning in 1891 and a second trip to Tahiti, and later, to the even more remote Marquesas Islands, where he spent the final years of his life, according to press material.
The exhibit shows Gauguin's relationship with Polynesia and is organized chronologically with 17 years of this man's work represented.
The show includes some of Gauguin's most iconic pieces, including "Women of Tahiti (Femmes de Tahiti)"; "Faaturuma (Melancholic)"; "Arearea no Varua ino (Words of the Devil, or Reclining Tahitian Women)"; and "Tehamana Has Many Parents."
Gauguin, for the most part, rejected European culture and romanticized a simpler, more natural lifestyle. He also had a martyr complex and thought of himself as misunderstood, Ishikawa said.
"Europe to him will always represent the past," Ishikawa said.
Ishikawa said Gauguin was thrown into despair when he learned about the death of his 19-year-old daughter, a favorite child. Before he relocated to Polynesia, he originally intended his family would all be together again some day, but that never happened.
Depressed, Gauguin painted his way out with more than eight remarkable works including "Three Tahitians," "The Bathers" and "Flowers and Cats."
SAM curator Pam McClusky described "Flowers and Cats" -- a still-life of a vase of flowers flanked by two cats -- as seeming out of place.
But Gauguin missed European flowers and had seeds brought to him, which he planted in his garden so he could look upon gladiolas, irises and lilies.
"It's a poignant and rare example of showing some feeling for the Europe he had previously dismissed," McClusky said.
"Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise" is on exhibit through April 29 at Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle.
Tickets range from $23 to $18. Call the box office at 206-654-3121 or go to
Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424;

Story tags » Libraries & MuseumsPaintingSculptureArts (general)

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