June 20, 1988 12:00 PM


Three puppies on a tabletop lap at a watery bowl of milk. Three goblets and three apples float nearby on the tablecloth. The table, upended in space, has no legs, the objects no depth, no shadows. This is a domestic image tipped askew, part of a disorienting world created by a brilliant 19th-century painter who has jettisoned the old rules.

Still Life with Three Puppies is only one of the radical works of Paul Gauguin, the Postimpressionist who altered the course of 20th-century art. He is best known, of course, for the work of his Tahitian period, but his was a long, varied career, and many of the treasures he produced are in The Art of Paul Gauguin, a traveling exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

This superb show was assembled by curators from the National Gallery, the ‘Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. They plucked more than 240 paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and ceramics from museums and private collections around the world. Eleven paintings from the Soviet Union, not seen in the West for more than 80 years, are part of the most ambitious Gauguin retrospective ever mounted—bigger even than the 1906 memorial show held in Paris only three years after Gauguin had died on Hiva Oa in the South Pacific’s Marquesas Islands.

Interest in Gauguin’s libertinism has at times overshadowed his art. The painter’s tempestuous life and loves have inspired many books and movies (including last year’s colorful The Wolf at the Door, starring Donald Sutherland as the compelling Gauguin). But the exhibit, happily, offers a chance to take a fresh look at Gauguin’s vast, often mysterious body of work.

The early oils, painted when Gauguin was a Sunday amateur enthralled by the Impressionists, predictably lack the decorative brilliance of his later paintings. But we glimpse the claustrophobic world of the artist, who was then working as a stockbroker during the 11 years he devoted to an attempt at bourgeois domesticity. In Flowers (1881), the antithesis of the typical airy Impressionist scene, Gauguin painted the gloomy parlor of his house in Paris. A looming bouquet of zinnias in an ornate vase dwarfs two figures, one his wife, Mette, half hidden behind a piano. The instrument’s massive black body separates them. Two years later, Gauguin, a monster of self-involvement who once called Mette “a filthy bourgeoise,” quit his job, eventually forsaking his wife and their five children to pursue his art.

Released from the conventional world he so despised, Gauguin began to seek primitivism in his work, embarking on a series of lengthy trips that were both literal and figurative voyages of discovery. It was a pattern that continued for the rest of his life. First in Brittany, later in Aries during 1888 (where he and Van Gogh maintained a stormy friendship until Van Gogh, perhaps understandably, tried to kill him), Gauguin became a pioneering member of the symbolist movement. He forged a new visual language, a restructuring of reality in which line and brilliant color reflect deep internal dreams.

The exhibition includes, for instance, Blue Trees, Seascape with Cow on the Edge of a Cliff, Old Women at Aries (all painted in 1888), examples of Gauguin radically transforming nature. Even more astonishing is the small charcoal drawing Bust of a Young Girl with a Fox (1890-91). A young woman, oddly prefiguring Gauguin’s Tahitian models, lies in profile on the ground. A slant-eyed fox, which Gauguin called “the symbol of perversity,” rests a paw on her breast. Her shadowy hand curves into his back, which blends into the dark swell of the hill behind them. The line of her throat is strongly etched, as is the animal’s paw. Between them exists a complicity we strain to understand.

Gauguin’s magnificent Tahitian paintings (executed between 1891 and 1903) dominate the show’s second half. In oil after oil, Gauguin created the pure, mythical world he had failed to find after his 1891 arrival in Papeete, a remote provincial capital inhabited by missionaries and French colonists. Why Are You Angry (1896), Delightful Day (1896), The Dream (1897) and The Noble Woman (1896) are pastoral scenes of great beauty, with Polynesian women looming large in the landscape. Like native goddesses, they are suspended in a perfect stillness. Gauguin’s women—a frequent model was his teenage mistress, Tehamana, (whom he depicted both nude and in demure missionary frocks)—have big feet and hands and sturdy legs, robust Eves with a hint of 20th-century abstraction in their flesh.

Gauguin’s self-portraits—when he didn’t paint beautiful women he often painted himself—are equally absorbing. They reveal the brooding mask-like faces of a devilish deity, a kind of Incan god with hooded eyes. “Enclosed is a photograph of my face,” he once wrote, “the face of a savage.” In Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait (1889), Gauguin, his eyes closed, assumes a Christlike pose, blood running down his face onto his mustache and neck.

Less well known than his oils, his highly original ceramic works are one of the great pleasures of the exhibition. Among them is his 1894 sculptural masterpiece, Oviri, an enigmatic ceramic of a savage goddess Gauguin referred to as “the murderess.” With a cub in her arms, she crushes a grown wolf lying at her feet in a pool of blood. A bronze copy of Oviri rests on Gauguin’s grave in the Marquesas, placed there by his grandson. It is a fitting epitaph for an artist of such extreme passions.

After its National Gallery run ends July 31, The Art of Paul Gauguin will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (Sept. 17-Dec. 11) and to the Galeries Nationales du Grand-Palais in Paris (Jan. 10-April 20, 1989.) A splendid catalog, edited by Mary Yakush of the National Gallery, accompanies the show. (National Gallery of Art, $27.95)

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