Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Why do I care about Gauguin?

Last June at The Hermitage art museum in St Petersburg Russia, I had a revelation. For certain, I had looked at a room or two of Gauguin's paintings in Moscow and been bowled over by the sheer volume of art works by single artists in each place. But it was one room in the Hermitage which stopped me in my tracks, and made me think about what I was seeing. This was the room of paintings which Paul Gauguin had produced in French Polynesia. Back last June, in my ignorance, I remembered from my art teacher days how I had him working only in Tahiti. I didn't know Gauguin spent time on the island of Tahiti before moving to the northern most group of French Polynesian islands - the Marquesas Islands. Unfortunately now, I do not know which paintings at The Hermitage are from which locations. They might all have been from Tahiti, all from the Marquesas or any mix of the two. I may find, when I reach French Polynesia, that Gauguin lived on and/or visited other islands around about. That room in St Petersburg was unusual to my eye. All the pictures which had been painted in a lush tropical environment were lacking a pulsating richness of colour which art historians have described as a key aspect of Gauguin's work. For example, "His bold, colorful and design oriented paintings ...", "Gauguin increasingly abandoned imitative art for expressiveness through colour" and "Gauguin discovered primitive art, with its flat forms and the violent colors belonging to an untamed nature." In St Petersburg, I did see bold and design-oriented paintings with flat forms. But I did not see intensely colourful or expressively colourful paintings nor did I see violent colours. I saw a strange sort of gloomy dullness. And as I sat on the window ledge at the Hermitage occasionally looking out to see if the torrential rain had stopped, I mused on why what I was looking at differed so much from what the art history books had to say (and I realised with embarrassment that I had taught countless classes of students the line the historians had taken, and I could see they were wrong and therefore I had been wrong.) Then in a flash I had an alternative way of understanding those pictures. An American woman sat down next to me and I loaded the idea to her. She, like me, found it plausible and at least worth further consideration. I have lived in and travelled through tropical Australia for many years (not to forget other tropical environments around the world). My recollections of the effect of tropical vegetation canopies is that colours are distorted beneath. Further, colours lose their clarity and brightness. I wondered whether this could explain Gauguin's use of colour and the overall effect of his pictures. I looked closely at the Hermitage pictures, and determined they were not in need of conservation cleaning. Therefore, it was not as if years of filth had clouded their purity. Rather, I felt ... and now I want to find out ... that Gauguin deliberately chose to paint his colours realistically based on what he saw out of direct sunlight. If you go to, this is the Gauguin Room at the Hermitage and as the virtual tour swivels around you can see the curtained windows. I sat on the ledge of the left one - the curtains had been raised because the day was not very bright outside. It is interesting looking at the paintings on this website because the photographed and well-lit images seem so much brighter than they did on the day when I was there. I remember, from the days when I was working at the Australian National Gallery, that works of art once reproduced as a photograph always appeared crisper, cleaner and brighter - the effect of 'professional' lighting.

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