“Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise” at the Seattle Art Museum, Downtown

SAM’s current Gauguin show combines his luxuriant images with graceful objects of material culture from the Polynesian Islands. It’s an exhibition even better than the blockbuster at the National Gallery in D.C. in the late ‘80s where there were more paintings but no ethnographic richness, and better than the show ten years ago at Chicago’s Art Institute focused on Van Gogh and Gauguin during their brief time together in Arles.

SAM is the only United States venue for this exhibition. Seeing Gauguin’s brilliant colors and exotic yet serene scenes in conjunction with the 60 majestic objects from various Polynesian Islands, gives us insight into traditional life and the cultural changes brought on by French colonialism and missionary activities.

Gauguin arrived in Polynesia expecting to see pristine native culture. Instead he found societies altered by western influences. He couldn’t throw away his own ethnocentric views so he never quite understood what he was seeing. His paintings suggest the Polynesian reality but offer it with a European patina. Make sure you look carefully at the women in their missionary dresses and expressions of resignation.

One gains new understandings by seeing Gauguin’s paintings, wood block prints, carvings, and ceramics  juxtaposed with traditional Polynesian ancestor figures, paddles, and tikis carved in wood and stone. Be sure to look at the illustrations of extraordinary body tattoos and don’t miss the remarkable body adornment made of feathers, sharks teeth and dog hair that could be inspiration for contemporary fashion designers.

Gauguin was a traveler who came naturally to his wanderlust. His parents brought him to Peru as a child, and he later visited much of the world as a seaman before settling down in France as a stockbroker and married man with five children. It was a market crash in 1882 that eventually set him and his paint box adrift again.

His beloved paintings of the people and landscapes of the South Pacific will undoubtedly and deservedly draw large crowds. Consider ordering your tickets in advance. Prices range from $18 to $23. Children under 12 are free as are members. Reduced rates are offered on first Thursdays.

Through April 29, 2012 at Seattle Art Museum, 130 First Ave., Seattle (206-654-3121 or www.seattleartmuseum.org)

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