“Yes, indeed, the savages have taught many things to the man of an old civilization; these ignorant men have taught him much in the art of living.”
— from “Noa Noa” by Paul Gauguin
When he wrote those words, Paul Gauguin was writing about a world that never was; that was, like his paintings, largely his own artistic creation. “Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints,” on exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum, opens a window into that world, created by the artist during the winter and spring of 1893-’94 following his first Tahitian voyage.
The assembled works function collectively as a material narration, speaking of the artist, his work, and his times. While there have been many exhibitions devoted to Gauguin, Calvin Brown, associate curator of prints and drawings at the museum, says that this modestly scaled display is the first to turn the focus on the Noa Noa suite. “In other, more extensive exhibitions the influential aspects of Noa Noa tend to get buried,” he says. “This is the first one to be totally devoted to this body of work.”
Noa Noa, which means a fragrant scent, functions as a graphic study of a significant moment in Gauguin’s life, using his own work and that of his contemporaries to speak of the artist and his time. Ten woodcuts, considered revolutionary, are presented in broad graphic context with an illustrated autograph manuscript, an original woodblock from the series, and later works by Gauguin, as well as a Tahitian-inspired polychrome relief carving.
What is more, the exhibition unites pairs of work that are rarely seen together — works that, in concert, document the expressive potential of the woodcut and serve as a discourse on Gauguin’s innovative approach to his medium. According to Brown the featured woodblock, incised by Gauguin, also plays an instructive role. “The inclusion of an original woodblock from the series adds another dimension to our understanding of printmaking and illustrates the varied artistic possibilities that exist between block and final results. The block helps the public comprehend the printmaking processes. If they can see the matrix from which the image comes, it helps in terms of understanding the translation the artist has to go through to make the plate and visualize the finished prints. When you’re making prints the thing that you make is quite different from the final image.”
Although it was never widely seen by the public, Noa Noa was an attempt by the artist to recover his position in the Parisian art world. When he returned to France following his first visit to Tahiti (1891-’93), Gauguin brought with him a body of work considered odd enough at the time to seriously damage his reputation as a leader of the Parisian avant garde and to diminish the value of his earlier work. To reestablish his position and make his new Symbolist paintings more accessible to a reluctant public, he set about writing a book which he called “Noa Noa.” Despite his original intentions, the book was never published but in the process he also produced a series of dark and brooding woodcuts, intended as illustrations, that continue to astound scholars more than a century after they were made. “They were so experimental,” says Brown. He describes them as “a cross between printmaking and drawing.” He says Gauguin “was always experimenting and he liked incorporating accident — showing the process that went into making them. They inspired artists who came after him.”
With such a complicated back story the assembled works — considered graphic landmarks — are almost as important for what they tell of the artist, his world, and his personal esthetic as for their graphic weight.
In 1891 the 41-year old Gauguin, a former stockbroker with a wife and five children, left his family and what he considered a culturally bereft society to seek an unfettered life in a tropical paradise. His disappointment on arrival was profound. The Tahiti he found was not the untouched Eden that he sought. Rather, he was confronted with a strong French colonial presence and fled to the island’s interior in search of his Nirvana. As such, both the manuscript and the featured prints are, to some degree, wishful thinking as well as a memoir, a 19th-century travelogue, and a serious body of artistic work.
Words and image celebrate the myth of an untainted Polynesian idyll. Gauguin’s Tahiti is served up as a primeval paradise; a luxuriant landscape populated by innately wise half-nude inhabitants; and a culture shaped, in part, by unusual and dramatic religious ritual with strong graphic elements. For Gauguin’s Parisian audience the woodcuts were an introduction to a world they could scarcely imagine, presented using a vocabulary that was equally alien.
As it turned out Noa Noa never reached the audience the artist sought. Brown says that Ambrose Vollard, Gaugin’s dealer, did not regard the prints sufficiently to place them on display in his gallery. They were, however, shown to artists and a small audience in Gauguin’s studio. Brown says that they met a with a strong positive reaction from the artists. A Noa Noa print purchased by Degas is included in the exhibition.
“It was very influential,” says Brown. “The artists were totally enthusiastic. They recognized the novelty, a true break with tradition. But they were not seen broadly outside Gauguin’s close circle.”
Even so, Brown notes that they ultimately had significant impact. They strongly influenced other artists, “Munch (for example) saw them in 1895, and the prints inspired him to make his own woodcuts.”
As an illustrated narrative Noa Noa is a telling introduction to Gauguin’s mythic untainted Polynesian idyll. But as it was for the artists, the medium remains a key part of the message. The assembled prints, a body of work unlike anything shown earlier in Paris, are a reflection of Gauguin’s artistic daring. “The technique is part of the meaning,” says Brown.
The stage is set for considering Noa Noa with a sampling of prints that illustrate the mode of that moment, a period of renewed artistic interest in the wood cut and wood engraving. A zincograph introduces the viewer to an earlier Gauguin — traditional for his times, even sentimental. The work of his contemporaries documents the prevailing artistic climate. Brown notes that Emile Bernard’s Jeux d’Enfants is almost medieval in style; a reflection of the Gothic revival that was sweeping Europe. Two works by Felix Valloton demonstrate the powerful influence of Japonisme at the time, with sinuous echoes of l’arte nouveau.
Within the context of his contemporaries the featured prints seem even more radical. The brooding images were made using sandpaper, knife blades, and gouges in combination with traditional tools to cut endgrain block, usually the province of engravers. Hand painting, ghost images, and color washed reduction prints take this work even further from the conventional print.
A sampling of later prints by Gauguin documents the way in which Noa Noa laid the base for even more innovative and complex imagery, according to Brown. “All his printmaking afterwards is woodcut, often reflecting painting projects. He continues to experiment with printmaking techniques, with references to his paintings. That collaging together of sources is what makes these so revolutionary. He also brought together a lot of imagery in paintings and prints. It was a multilayered iconography — pantheistic imagery that gets all mixed with Christian symbolism.”
While in Tahiti, Gauguin contracted syphilis. He died in 1903, impoverished and stranded on the South Pacific Marquesas Islands.
“Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints,” Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton campus. On view to January 2. 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.