Paul Gauguin’s memoir chronicling his first trip to Tahiti is called Noa Noa, which means “fragrant scent”. It’s a reference not to the sweet smell of flowering tropical flora, but the “mingled perfume, half animal, half vegetable” of the Tahitian women.
Gauguin embarked on his famous voyage in 1891, fleeing from financial ruin and harsh criticism of his art. He put 30 of his works up for sale to pay for the trip and set off in search of an untouched beauty far away from “everything that is artificial and conventional.”
Upon his return to France in 1893 the artist finished writing Noa Noa and illustrated it with ten woodblock prints, including l’Univers est Cree(The Creation of the Universe). The journal tells largely fictional stories of an idyllic island life, but its title hints at the true nature of Gauguin’s odyssey. In Tahiti, the wandering artist found a culture shattered by colonialism, and couldn’t shake an all-consuming sexual desire that would eventually kill him. There’s more than a hint of this darkness in the print that hangs on our wall.
Gauguin and his son produced multiple versions of l’Univers, a primordial beach scene featuring a bizarre cast of creatures: a male torso, a distorted female figure, a fish-man and a levitating cluster of monstrous faces. The Noa Noa series was the artist’s first try at woodblock printmaking, and he was determined to approach the medium in as primitive a manner as possible. He used needles and sandpaper to etch the block and applied it to the paper by hand.
The facture of l’Univers is so rough that authors Alastair Wright and Calvin Brown said that Princeton’s version “hovers at the edge of illegibility”, but the Matthews Gallery’s print was pulled with a more delicate touch. From the tumbling waves to the lines that mark out fierce winds, each feature of the strange landscape stands starkly from the black ink.
Even with Gauguin’s creation story spread so clearly before us, it’s difficult to guess at the meaning behind it. “It’s a surrealist work before surrealism,” Lawrence likes to say. Perhaps this subconscious sandbox, built from dreams and nightmares, sits on the line between the artist’s high hopes for life in Tahiti (rebirth, beaches, beautiful woman) and the reality that he faced when he got there (tumult, deformation, death).
The artist never would have let this tension slip into his fanciful writing or his sunny paintings of Tahiti, but something more ominous emerged when faced with the challenge of hacking his utopian scenes into wood. Gauguin’s paradise was as ephemeral as a fragrant scent.
To top off our list of art history’s most influential players (click here for part 1), we had to make some tough decisions. Would Monet still be known today if not for a fateful trip to the seashore with Boudin? Who had a greater influence on abstract expressionism: Pollock or De Kooning? Browse our choices and let us know if you agree or disagree in comments below or on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
6.Eugene Boudin (1824-1898)
French painter Eugene Boudin grew up riding across the English Channel on his father’s steamboat between his home village of Honfleur and the city of Le Havre. Boudin’s mother put an end to the voyages when the young boy nearly drowned, and the family moved to Le Havre to open a picture frame shop. Perhaps it was these early years at sea—and that terrifying dip in the tumbling waves—that drove Boudin to create the small but dynamic compositions that would directly inspire Impressionism.
As a young man Boudin opened his own framing shop and showed work by artists such as Constant Troyon and Jean-Francois Millet. At 22 he started painting full-time, capturing coastal scenes with an impeccable eye for light and a keen interest in the social interactions of beach-goers. He was greatly influenced by the 16th century Dutch masters, and was one of the first French painters to work in the outdoors.
Boudin moved to Paris on a scholarship when he was 23 and soon met the teenage Claude Monet. Monet was working as a caricaturist on the streets of Paris, but Boudin convinced him to travel to Normandy and paint en plein air. In 1874 Boudin showed work in the first Impressionist exhibition alongside Monet’s pivotal Impression, Sunrise, which was painted in Le Havre and inspired the name of the new movement. Without Boudin’s encouragement, Monet may never have moved past charcoal.
7.Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)
Picasso and Matisse called Paul Cezanne “the father of us all”, but there’s always a mentor behind a master. Cezanne was heavily influenced by Danish-French Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. “He was a father for me,” Cezanne said. “A man to consult and a little like the good Lord.”
Pissarro grew up on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies and attended a boarding school near Paris. In school he studied the French masters and excelled at drawing and painting. He moved to Paris in 1855 to apprentice with Anton Melbye and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. While Corot worked on his paintings in the studio, Pissarro insisted on painting en plein air and often finished works in one sitting.
The artist was criticized for his technique, which often exposed the rougher, less picturesque side of the French landscape, but his quick, intuitive methods attracted a small group of artists who would soon be known as the Impressionists. Pissarro became their patriarch, and was the only artist to participate in all eight Impressionist exhibitions. However, it was his switch to Neo-Impressionism at 54 and his great influence on Post Impressionism that landed him on this list. Pissarro’s impulse to look deeper into the landscape and trace every rough edge would inspire Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne in their revolutionary explorations of perspective that would fracture (and eventually completely dissolve) the classical picture plane.
8.Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Pablo Picasso is arguably the most famous—and prolific—artist of the 20th century. He created roughly 13,500 paintings and hundreds of thousands more prints, engravings, illustrations and sculptures over the course of his 75-year career. Though he’s famous for co-developing Cubism, it was his explorations into all corners of the plastic arts that made him so influential. No matter the medium or style, Picasso had a hand in radically changing it all.
The artist was born in Malaga, Spain. His father was a professor of art who began formally training his son from a very young age. By 16, Picasso had gained entrance to the prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando. In the early 1900s he moved to Paris, where he met art collector Gertrude Stein and many of the most famous artists of the time. He started working with Georges Braque in 1909, and the close friends developed a style that pushed Cezanne’s explorations of multiple perspectives to new extremes.
Cubism encouraged artists to analyze objects and break them into thousands of pieces, and similarly shattered the art world into myriad Modernist movements from Futurism to Constructivism.
9. Jackson Pollock (1912- 1956)
Jackson Pollock was called “Jack the Dripper” and “The Worst Living Artist in America” by the media, and a large slice of the public saw him as a reclusive drunkard who dealt the killing blow to order and sense in art. Sometimes when you’re drumming up an art revolution, things have to get messy.
Pollock grew up the youngest of five brothers in Arizona and California. He and his brother Charles moved to New York City in 1930, where he studied at the Art Students League and worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1936 he took an experimental workshop on liquid paint that would later influence his famous drip paintings. Under the watchful eyes of collector Peggy Guggenheim, art critic Clement Greenberg and his wife Lee Krasner, who he married in 1947, Pollock would become the figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement and radically change the world’s definition of art.
Greenberg saw Abstract Expressionism as the final step in painting’s inevitable reduction to its most essential elements. There was an unmatched purity to Pollock’s atmospheric, gravity free color fields that only the eye could traverse. “Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced,” Greenberg mused. Whether you agree with the critic or not, Pollock undoubtedly subverted figurative painting in an unprecedented way, and changed art history in the process.
10. Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Austro-Hungarian immigrants. In third grade he developed Sydenham’s Cholera, a disorder of the nervous system that left him bedridden for months at a time. Isolated from his peers, the shy child became a voracious student of pop culture. Just a few years later he would build his own towering pedestal using the very figures and symbols that he pinned on his bedroom walls.
Warhol graduated from high school in 1945 and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology for commercial art. In 1949 he moved to New York City, where he worked in the publishing and advertising industries and got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in pictorial design. In the 1950’s RCA records hired Warhol as a designer, where he pioneered innovations in various image-making techniques, most notably in screen printing. At the same time he was using similar processes—and subject matter—in his fine art, which he showed in galleries around New York. It was an approach to art that offended many critics at the time, who accused Warhol of succumbing to the homogenizing forces of consumerism.
This was Warhol’s true impact on art history: to show contemporary artists that they couldn’t avoid or ignore the foundational social changes affected by the mass media. Whether he was exploring identity, vanity, sexuality, fame or nothing at all, Warhol was molding the mercurial landscapes of Modern and Postmodern art.