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Seattle Art Museum is the only U.S. venue for Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise
Paul Gauguin, Parahi te Marae (The Sacred Mountain), 1892. Oil on canvas, 26 x 35in. (66 x 88.9cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, 1980.

SEATTLE, WA.- Seattle Art Museum will present the only United States stop for Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, a landmark show highlighting the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin's work and the art and culture of Polynesia. The exhibition, on view February 9 through April 29, 2012, includes about 50 of Gauguin's brilliantly hued paintings, sculptures and works on paper, which are displayed alongside 60 major examples of Polynesian sculpture that fueled his search for the exotic. Organized by the Art Centre Basel the show is comprised of works on loan from some of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections.

Gauguin (1848-1903) is one of the most influential and celebrated artists of the late nineteenth century. From early on in his career he yearned for the exotic in both his life and his work. While his Polynesian experience was a defining factor in both his art and his posthumous reputation, many exhibitions devoted to his work have treated the artist’s direct relationship with Polynesian art as one small part of his larger enterprise. Through a balanced analysis of Polynesian art alongside Gauguin’s works, this exhibition shifts the emphasis and brings Polynesian arts and culture into the center of Gauguin studies.

The show will feature many iconic works by Gauguin including Women of Tahiti (Femmes de Tahiti), 1891, Faaturuma (Melancholic), 1891, Arearea no Varua ino (Words of the Devil, or Reclining Tahitian Women), 1894 and Gauguin’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière, 1888 or 1889.

“I’m leaving so that I can be at peace and can rid myself of civilization’s influence. I want to create only simple art. To do that, I need to immerse myself in virgin nature, see only savages, live their life, with no other care than to portray, as would a child, the concepts in my brain using only primitive artistic materials, the only kind that are good and true.” (Paul Gauguin, interviewed before leaving for Tahiti February 23, 1891)

By the time Gauguin arrived in Polynesia, however, it was far from “virgin nature.” Inextricably altered by 125 years of sustained contact with European visitors, Tahiti in 1891 was a French territory where conversions to Christianity had led to frequent prohibitions of traditional carving, tattooing, ceremonies and dancing. Catastrophic population loss from the 1780s to 1820s hit Polynesia as a result of introduced diseases, famines, and the escalation of warfare due to the availability of muskets and alcohol.

The exhibition will reveal the relationship as much more complex and interesting than previously thought. Gauguin sought a paradise of gentle populations set in nature’s abundance, and introduced his own imperfect notions of Polynesian religion and culture into the works of art he sent back to Europe. The exhibition will balance examples of his interpretation of Tahitian and Marquesan culture by recounting the Polynesian side of the story, presenting art forms that illustrate what he was seeing and providing reflection on what he was not able to comprehend.

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