ONE WORK OF ART: Paul Gauguin’s l’Univers est Cree

Paul Gauguin at the Matthews Gallery
Paul Gauguin, l’Univers est Cree

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.

Paul Gauguin- L'Univers est Cree (detail)- Matthews Gallery
Fish-man

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.

Paul Gauguin- L'Univers est Cree (detail)- Matthews Gallery
Monstrous heads

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 learn more, check out our other print from the Noa Noa series and read about it in this blog post. For daily gallery news, connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Advertisements

Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924 – 2010) A Sculptor Who Forged The Way

Hannah Holliday Stewart (1924 – 2010) had her sculpture exhibited in over 40 venues including The Smithsonian, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and others. Her work and her career were instrumental to the increased recognition of women sculptors in the United States. The International Sculpture magazine wrote :

“(She) forged the way for serious women sculptors. Uniting Greek mythology and contemporary energy concepts … (her) work fuses both primitive and futuristic sensibilities.”

At a time when the art world marginalized women artists, she chose to create her own world from metal and stone and helped lead the way for a generation of women sculptors. Though she had achieved a high level of success and recognition, she eventually turned her back on the art establishment and continued to work in isolation for the last twenty years of her life. After her death in 2010, sculptures, consisting of work that spanned her entire career, were discovered in her studio – from pieces that are only a few inches tall to one bronze that is over nine feet.

A written statement discovered in one of her notebooks eloquently records her own thoughts on the origins and principles underlying her art work:

When I was eight years old, I asked my mother what the wind really looked like. I remember spending hours … days … sitting with my hands open wide or running with my lightning-bug jar, hoping to catch the wind. I wanted to SEE the wind, that magical force that could bend the huge oak tree in a summer storm, gently caress me on a hot summer day or sing to me as it played through a tree or around the house.

This early interest in natural forces has sustained me throughout my life as a sculptor. My goal is to render visible the hidden realities of pent-up contained energy. The direct fields of reference are Sacred Geometry, Astronomy, Myth & Physics … Each Sculpture is an energy form, the movement arrested in space, a form sustaining an energy. My work is a response to these patterns and delineations and communicates with viewers through the universality of symbolism and form.

The Matthews Gallery is pleased to show this pioneering artist and reacquaint the world with her work. If you would like to learn more about Hannah Holliday Stewart, we have created a website dedicated to her life and work which includes a 163 page online catalog of her work. Click Here to visit the site.