Friday, March 25, 2011

How To Be Happy by Paul Gauguin

Amongst the pleasurable lessons I learned at the crowded National Gallery's "Gauguin: Maker of Myths" exhibition was this: Be in love and you will be happy.

It was the name of a woodcut print. It was the name of a carved and painted linden wood piece. It was one of two things inscribed on the wooden panels Gauguin made for the entrance to his house (which he called the house of sensual pleasure) in Tahiti.

To enter his studio, you had to walk under the inscription and through his bedroom. There was really no missing his point.

The exhibition explored how Gauguin used myths throughout his career, blending fact and fiction to blur the lines between reality and his fertile imagination.

And given his artistic gift (when he was 28, his landlord taught him marble-carving and a bust of his wife showed his immediate mastery of the medium), he could blur that line using any number of methods.

This was beautifully illustrated in one of my favorites in the show, "Clovis Asleep," an especially Impressionistic piece for Gauguin, with a lovely blue wall covered in planets and stars over the slumbering child's head, surely signifying his dreams.

Another piece I couldn't resist was a pair of wooden Dutch shoes from which Gauguin had removed the bright paint, adding two decorative motifs (Breton women and a goose); he took to wearing them frequently to show his identification with the Breton peasantry, as well as his rejection of Parisian excesses.

I found it fascinating how Gauguin used questions for titles of paintings. It is supposed that many of the questions came from overheard conversations in Tahiti, but it gave an intimacy to the figures in the works, as you literally saw them and figuratively heard them.

"Ondine in the Waves" was the simplest of compositions and yet spectacular: a nude woman's back with an S-curve of red hair stood against an entire background of green waves. A study in color and form, it was mesmerizing.

Making my way through the exhibition and around the masses of humankind, it was hard not to get caught up in the beauty of the tropics. Even through the primitive paradise Gauguin sought turned out to be a thing of the past, I'm thinking he may have been right about the secret to happiness.

I was all kinds of happy looking at the fruits of his labors of love this afternoon, even without being in love. Yet. Give me time.

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