SPRING OF MODERNISM: Paul Burlin

Paul Burlin- New Mexico Modernist- Matthews Gallery Blog  As our SPRING OF MODERNISM exhibition approaches its closing date on March 31st, we’re sharing the incredible stories of 20th century artists who shook the foundations of the New Mexico art community. This week we have Paul Burlin, who battled blindness to create his magnum opus. 

Paul Burlin (1886-1969) was born in New York City and had a difficult childhood that he preferred not to discuss. He completed his early education in England before returning to New York at the age of twelve.

He left home at 16, and studied part-time at the National Academy of Art and the New York Art Students League from 1900 to 1912. During that time, he worked as an illustrator under Theodore Dreiser and frequented Alfred Stieglitz‘s 291 gallery. At 291, Burlin developed a taste for Picasso‘s ‘primitive’ artwork that lead him to study African tribal art and, later, the art and culture of the Southwest Pueblos.

Paul Burlin- Untitled New 1951- Matthews Gallery Blog

Burlin visited New Mexico for the first time in 1910. Paintings from this visit were received warmly in New York and exhibited in 1911. As a result of his early success, he was the youngest artist (at 26 years old) to participate in the 1913 Armory Show.

The same year, Burlin moved back to Santa Fe to develop a new body of work, and continued to exhibit in New York City. With the images and ideas of the Armory Show still prominent in his mind, Burlin was impressed and moved by what he described as the ‘primeval, erosive, forbidding character of the landscape.’ His early works in New Mexico were genre paintings of the Pueblo Indians in a realist style, but he soon developed a colorful abstract vocabulary ruled by symbols both ancient and modern.

Burlin’s time in New Mexico had a profound impact, not only on his own work, but on the development of modernism throughout the Southwest.  From University of New Mexico art historian Sharyn Udall:

Burlin was the first Armory Show participant to reach New Mexico, and that fact, coupled with his confident handling of local subject matter, made a definite impression on newcomers [Marsden] Hartley and B.J.O. Nordfeldt… It is clear, moreover, that Burlin’s stature as the first modernist painter in New Mexico was unquestioned; his was the pivotal role in introducing fauve and expressionist modes to the art of New Mexico (Udall 1984; 28).

Paul Burlin- Untitled Pivot 1952- Matthews Gallery Blog

Though he moved away from New Mexico in 1920—living in New York and Paris for the rest of his days—Burlin’s artistic evolution in the Land of Enchantment influenced his work for the rest of his life, as evidenced in these canvases from the 1950s. Not long after he made this work, Burlin began to lose his sight. His final series of paintings, completed while he was legally blind, were exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1971, two years after Burlin’s death.

From Burlin:

We live in an age of treacherous, harrowing notions of mutability, death and decay…All of the old realities have dissolved…all rigidities of form disappear and enter into a new metamorphosis.  This metamorphosis of form and reality is manifested in shape and color, which destroy visual reality and…shape themselves into a reality of their own.

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From MoMA to Matthews: Gauguin’s Metamorphoses

Paul Gauguin - Mahana No Atua - Matthews Gallery Blog

Paul Gauguin, The Day of God (Mahana No Atua), woodcut

There’s no record of what Paul Gauguin’s last lover Marie-Rose Vaeoho thought of him, but their courtship must have been rough. By the time Gauguin reached the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in 1901, he had eczema, syphilis, malaria, tooth rot, a heart condition and a very bad liver. Local teen Marie-Rose gave birth to his daughter in September of 1902, and he died on May 8, 1903. Gauguin’s body was already rotting in the tropical heat during the burial.

This distasteful finale is an ill-fitting epilogue to Noa Noa, Gauguin’s fanciful (and mostly false) account of his early travels in Polynesia. The artist’s twilight years may have been ruled by destruction and decay, but he clung to themes of rebirth, transformation, divinity and utopia in his art and writing. The New York MoMA’s new exhibition Gauguin: Metamorphoses centers on woodblock prints and other works on paper that he produced between 1889 and the time of his death. At Matthews Gallery we have two Gauguin woodblock prints from the same period that he made to accompany his Noa Noa memoir.

From MoMA:

 These remarkable works on paper reflect Gauguin’s experiments with a range of mediums, [including] radically “primitive” woodcuts that extend from the sculptural gouging of his carved wood reliefs […]. Gauguin’s creative process often involved repeating and recombining key motifs from one image to another, allowing them to evolve and metamorphose over time and across mediums.

For Gauguin, the printmaking process was a natural extension of this mercurial philosophy. It allowed him to mirror and tweak imagery between prints and even in different runs of the same print.

 In New York, you can see several versions of Gauguin’s Noa Noa woodblock prints. In Santa Fe, come track the evolution of the series through two of our works. Here’s a peek—

Paul Gauguin- Mahana No Atua- Woodblock print and painting- Matthews Gallery Blog

The Day of God (Mahana No Atua), our woodblock print and the painting

Our woodblock print and its oil counterpart were created around the same time and are close mirror images of each other. Both show three women on a shore with a Polynesian sculpture (based on carved Buddhist reliefs from Java) rising above them. In the painting, our eyes are drawn to the bright colors and wild abstract forms of the water. In the print, the women and the statue stand out as bold graphic elements, highlighting the symmetry of the composition.

Gauguin’s decision to reverse the composition from one work to the other brings up some interesting interpretive questions. The three women in the foreground may represent birth, life and death. If their positions can be so easily flipped, perhaps life’s course isn’t so linear either. Viewed together, the works form a loop that reflect Buddhist beliefs concerning rebirth.

Paul Gauguin- LUnivers Est Cree- 5 Versions- Matthews Gallery Blog

Five versions of Paul Gauguin’s L’Univers Est Cree, including ours (center)

We’ve written about our version of L’Univers Est Cree on the blog before, but Gauguin, his son Pola and artist Louis Roy made several print runs from the block. Some are crisply defined and others are murky with only a few details clearly in view. Some incorporate bright reds and yellows, while others are starkly monochrome.

When Gauguin presented his Noa Noa prints in a private studio show in Paris in 1894, he hung several versions of each print. The decision seems like the artist’s acknowledgment of his futile struggle to embrace a paradaisical version of his island experiences. As scholar Alaistar Wright puts it, the repeated, ever-changing images “allowed him to reflect on the impossibility of having any authentic experience in his dreamed-of Polynesian idyll.”

Visit us at Matthews Gallery to see Paul Gauguin’s incredible woodblock prints. To learn more, read our blog post about “L’Univers Est Cree” and listen to Lawrence’s accompanying podcast.  For daily gallery news, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.