At Zurich’s Kunsthaus, the rare graphic works by Paul Gauguin

16 October 2012

For some artists, especially those from the recent past, success looks more like a punishment: they are exploited and trivialised by the art business, and their exhibitions are unbearably overcrowded. Sometimes though, one has the chance to enjoy their work in a different milieu, more private and authentic. This happens today in Zurich, where the local Kunsthaus hosts Paul Gauguin. Das druckgrafische Werk, an exhibition devoted to some of the least known pieces of the French painter’s repertoire: his graphic works.

Sure, the subjects of these engravings are the ones we all know: they range from life scenes on the hills and by the sea, to those very feminine portraits upon which Gauguin’s fortune was built. However, while the popular, exotic image of the artists privileges the serenity, mellowness and universal harmony of his Tahitian works, the xilographs and zincographs displayed at the Kunsthaus until 20 January 2013 all suggest a different kind of perspective, more faithful to the biographical profile of their author.

Images like those in “Soyez amoureuses, vous serez heureuses” or “Nave Nave Fenua (Terre délicieuse)” are pervaded by a different mood, a dark and melancholic one. The woodcut “Misères humaines” reveals an unrest spirit: the landscape still appears heavenly, but the woman contemplating it is miserable; his “Sauvage” figure is not exactly the portrait of the bon sauvage, rather he holds a mask behind which he seems to be screaming. The curators’ choice was to create a link between Gauguin’s moments of illness and his development of graphic techniques, in particular during the second half of the 1890s. Gauguin enjoyed trying out different methods, and he printed one plate over the other thereby obtaining interesting perspective and colour effects.

A good way of proceeding with the visit is to concentrate on the painter’s colour choices. In the 1889 Volpini suite grey-scale paintings carried out on shiny-yellow paper sheets are shown. The Noa Noa series exalts primitiveness by blending together bodies and earth, with blood turning from brown to black.

By proposing a rare and select set of works, most of which come from private collections, this exhibition shows the surprising side of Paul Gauguin.


Paul Gauguin / L’Univers est crée, 1893–1894 / Noa Noa-Suite Woodcut, image: 20.5 x 35.5 cm / Private collection

Paul Gauguin / Soyez amoureuses, vous serez heureuses, 1898 / Woodcut, image: 15.8 x 26.2 cm / Private collection

Paul Gauguin – Leda, 1889 / Frontispiece of the Suite Volpini / Zincograph, hand-coloured, image including inscription: 22.1 x 20.4 cm / Private collection

Paul Gauguin – Les cigales et les fourmis, 1889 / Suite Volpini / Zincograph, image: 21.6 x 26.1 cm / Private collection

Paul Gauguin – Human Misery (Misères humaines), 1898–1899 / Woodcut, image: 19 x 30 cm / Private collection

Paul Gauguin – Oviri (Savage), 1894 / Woodcut, hand-coloured, image: 20.5 x 12 cm / Private collection

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