Historical Irony. Or: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Dora Imhof
Fondation Beyeler, 01.03.2015

Coincidences occur. But some are perhaps not coincidences at all. At least they give rise to considerations concerning not only art, but also money and the course of history, which in this context can only be called ironic. On February 8, the Fondation Beyeler opened a large show dedicated to Paul Gauguin that was already announced in advance as the “art event of the year.” The artist and his works, especially those created in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, are classics of the museum circuit. Just a few years ago, there were the important and expansive exhibitions Gauguin – Tahiti, l’atelier des tropiques at the Museé d’Orsay and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (2003/4) and Gauguin. Maker of Myth at Tate Modern, London and the National Gallery of Art, Washington (2010/11), or—in a smaller format—Gauguin and Polynesia at the Ny Carlsberg Library, Copenhagen, and the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (2011/12), as well as Paul Gauguin: The Prints at Kunsthaus Zürich (2012/13). 
  What new insights can be added to such a well cultivated garden, if masterpieces are not just to be stringed together? The announcement of a major event seems justified all the same, since the show brings together in a probably unique way works from the important Gauguin collections of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Museum Folkwang in Essen etc., as well as from a number of private collections. Even Gauguin’s magnum opus from 1897/98, D’où venons-nous?  Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), was allowed to travel from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to Riehen.

Gauguin Fig. 1

It is the symbolist painting Gauguin had begun with after an existential and almost fatal crisis in December 1897, as he wrote in February of the following year to his friend, the art collector and Gauguin’s first biographer George-Daniel de Monfreid. This marks a further coup for the Fondation after its recent presentation of Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde from the Musée d’Orsay.
  Yet the guest appearance of Gauguin’s Boston masterpiece was almost bettered by another picture by the artist. Shortly before the opening weekend, it became known that the art collector Rudolf Staechelin and the Staechelin Family Trust were going to sell the picture Nafea faa ipoipo? (When Will You Marry?) from 1892, a permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel.


GauguinFig. 2


On February 5, the New York Times reported that the painting was sold for close to 300 million dollars. According to undisclosed art dealers, the purchaser is from Qatar. Newspapers around the world reported on the sale of the “most expensive painting in the world.” The trust wanted to diversify its investments, and the current market environment was favorable, stated Rudolf Staechelin, without confirming or denying the sale of the picture to Qatar or the sales price. What is certain is that the painting will be on display for the duration of the Gauguin show at Fondation Beyeler, but will not return to the newly opened art museum in 2016. It is as yet unclear what will happen to the other loans of the Staechelin family, but the loan agreement with the art museum has been terminated. There is, of course, great regret in Basel in face of the loss and also widespread astonishment at the exorbitant amount of money that discreet collectors are apparently willing to pay for their trophies. It is by no means certain that the collector is from the royal Al-Thani family in Qatar, but it is not improbable. In 2011 a painting from Paul Cézanne’s series Les joueurs de cartes (The Cardplayers) owned by the Greek collector Georges Embiricos was said to have been sold to Qatar for 250 million dollars, at the time also called the “most expensive artwork in the world” or the “most expensive picture of all times.” Yet that would just be a further coincidence, albeit an historical one. Qatar’s enormous wealth, as that of other Gulf states, derives from its oil reserves, the natural resource that since the early 20th century has formed the foundation of our mobility and large parts of our economy—the economy and civilization from which Gauguin fled at the end of the 19th century to the supposedly untouched South Seas. The former insurance and stock broker wrote in a letter to his Danish wife Mette in 1890: “May the day come—and perhaps soon—when I can flee to the woods on a South Sea island and live there in ecstasy, in peace and for art. With a new family by my side, far from the European struggle for money.” The day had come in 1891. After an auction of thirty paintings, supported by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, on February 23, 1891, in the Parisian Hôtel Drouot (among the buyers was the painter Edgar Degas), Gauguin had enough money to set off on his first journey to Tahiti on April 1. The passage to Papeete lasted 69 days.
  But in other parts of the world, fundamental changes in transportation had already commenced. Not only did crucial experiments in flying take place during this time, in 1886 Carl Benz had the first automobile with a combustion engine patented, and in the 1890s the first cars were developed and produced in large volumes in the United States, for example, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash made by the Olds Motor Works. This was even before Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in car-making and in 1903 (the year of Gauguin death) founded the Ford Motor Company, whose thirsty tanks let the oil wells in Qatar flow. It is pointless to imagine what the artist—who was critical of capitalism, always short of money in Tahiti and then on the Marquesas Islands, and regretted the electrification of Tahiti’s capital Papeete—would have said, had he known what enormous sums would be paid a hundred years later for his works and that the Western (and Middle Eastern) civilization that he so despised would catch up with him posthumously along such convoluted paths.
  All this has little to do with the show at the Fondation Beyeler and does not really diminish the pleasure one can take in it. Key pictures from Gauguin’s time in Brittany are on view, such as La Vision du sermon (Vision After the Sermon), 1888, a painting whose bright red flatness clearly reveals the influence of Japanese woodcuts by Hokusai and Hiroshige and was one of the works sold at the auction before Gauguin’s departure.


GauguinFig. 3


It is displayed in the same room alongside Autoportrait au Christ jaune (Self-Portrait With the Yellow Christ), 1890-91, and Le Christ jaune, 1889. A wall of the large central hall of the Fondation, opening to the water lily pond, features a stunning combination of three silent female dialogues from Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti. The Nafea picture from the Staechelin collection is framed by Aha oe feii? (Are You Jealous?), 1892, from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and Parau api (What's new, Parau api), 1892, from the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen, Dresden.


GauguinFig. 4


GauguinFig. 5


These paintings and the following ones show that Gauguin was unparalleled in his ability to make use of art’s potential of longing: The paradise that the painter believed to have found in Tahiti may no longer have been one, and perhaps it never was, but it is where the quest for paradise came upon its icons.
  The selection of subsequent pictures made on the second trip to Tahiti and Hiva Oa is entrancing. It includes not only the enigmatic masterpiece Contes barbares (Barbarian Tales), 1902 from Essen, that combines idyll with eeriness, especially through the figure in the background, a portrait of his deceased red-haired friend, the Dutch painter Jacob Meyer de Haan, with the paws of a fox.


GauguinFig. 6


But also portraits such as Femme à l’éventail (Woman with Fan), 1902, or pictures with several figures such as Rupe Rupe (Fruit Gathering), 1899, a surprisingly classic Gauguin, in which the flatness developed in Brittany merges with the most delicate color shadings and plasticity.


GauguinFig. 7


What becomes evident here is the engagement with a variety of influences, such as the Parthenon frieze and the Indonesian Buddhist temples of Borobudur. And maybe even more strongly than in his early works, the shimmering purple, pink and golden shades provide evidence of what an amazing colorist Gauguin was.
  In short, it is an exhibition that does not raise new questions, but instead compiles fantastic paintings. It requires getting used to, although it is understandable in face of the expected crowds, that the show ends with a huge (second!) shop in the exhibition halls and an information room with playful interactive installations. The additional information does indeed make sense, because it not only reveals numerous sources of Gauguin’s paintings in historical documents and personal testimonials, but additionally hints at how Gauguin was fascinated by Tahiti’s old myths, while at the same time always constructing his own myth in his letters, his travelogue Noa Noa (1897) and subsequent publications. Yet the tantalizing flowery scent of the Tahiti pictures cannot let one entirely forget how much power is demonstrated here and elsewhere with these paintings. Power plays and deals with loans, counter-loans and (insecure) permanent loans that on the one hand appear highly topical, but on the other just as archaic as the rites depicted in these South Sea paintings.

Paul Gauguin
February 8 - June 28, 2015 at the Fondation Beyeler
Baselstrasse 101, CH-4125 Riehen

Fig. 1
Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?, 1897/98, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Oil on canvas, 139,1 x 374,6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Tompkins Collection, Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund
Photo : © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Fig. 2
Paul Gauguin, Nafea faaipoipo, 1892, When Will You Marry?
Oil on canvas, 105 x 77,5 cm , Collection Rudolf Staechelin
Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

Fig. 3
Paul Gauguin, La Vision du sermon, 1888, Vision After the Sermon
Oil on canvas, 72,2 x 91 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Fig. 4
Paul Gauguin, Aha oe feii?, 1892, Are You Jealous?
Oil on canvas, 66 x 89 cm, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Photo: © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Fig. 5
Paul Gauguin, Parau api, 1892, What's new
Oil on canvas, 67 x 91 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Galerie Neue Meister 
Photo: Jürgen Karpinski

Fig. 6
Paul Gauguin, Contes Barbares, 1902, Barbarian Tales
Oil on canvas, 131,5 x 90,5 cm, Museum Folkwang, Essen
Foto: © Museum Folkwang, Essen

Fig. 7
Paul Gauguin, Rupe Rupe, 1899, Fruit Gathering
Oil on canvas, 128 x 190 cm, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Foto: © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Dora Imhof is an art historian and postdoc at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) of the ETH Zürich.

Translation: Karl Hoffmann