Photographs ©John P. Walsh
Photographs ©John P. Walsh
By John P. Walsh
The nineteenth century in France brought about a radical transformation of the role of the artist. In place of artwork for aristocratic patrons, artists in all media were increasingly left to their own devices and began creating works of art in their studios and looking to sell them in the open marketplace. Innovative forms, new subjects, and new styles emerged from these changing economic structures brought about by the dawning of the industrial and technological age as well as the growing importance of cities.
In Paris and elsewhere, enterprising artists sought to attract new clients increasingly composed of the urban bourgeoisie. By the mid-to-late nineteenth century the involvement of the public in artistic matters became an irrevocable fact which had been secured by the improved means of mass production. New processes in lithographic and photographic printmaking, for example, made art widely available to a popular audience. The entry of this sort of democracy into artistic production coincided with current aesthetic influences such as a Japonisme movement prevalent in France in the years before 1890. In addition, there was a new understanding of modern beauty that began around 1830 that rejected traditional forms of beauty manifested in classical and later art forms.
By the early 1890’s when Henri Toulouse Lautrec (French, 1864-1901) created his mass-produced posters in Paris a new artistic practice had appeared whose idea of beauty was contemporary, sophisticated and subtly realistic. By 1890, Lautrec’s art could react in several ways to the modern art tradition. Toulouse-Lautrec repudiated the bourgeois modernity of the Impressionists from the 1870’s and 1880’s displayed in the drawing-room paintings of Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) and, owing to cultural spaces that had shifted by the 1880’s to artistic cabarets and literary cafés, Lautrec could also claim to be a direct heir to an earlier 1830’s romantic bohemian and 1840’s flâneur.
There are several interpretations for this cultural shift and its effects on artists and artistic practice in the 1890’s including Toulouse-Lautrec’s mass-produced commercial posters. Building on a rejection of bourgeois art forms, Mary Gluck at Brown University argues that artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec—who with others was a creature of the cabarets and cafés—desired commercial mass media to be the means by which the public sphere would eclipse individual lives which modern society had fragmented. At the center of their art production, Gluck believes, is a distinct vision of modernity identified with a city’s public space as opposed to the private anonymity of bourgeois culture (see Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, 2005). To strive to transform the public sphere by way of the legacy of the café-concert about and for which Toulouse-Lautrec created a significant amount of his mass-produced commercial art could only be an ambitious cultural task. These cabarets and café-concerts, mostly centered on and around Montmartre in Paris, were crowded, loud and often rowdy. Its performances and clientele were often unpolished and popular. Small but well-known art movements such as Les Arts incohérents and their Montmartre cabaret Les Hydropathes begin to describe the level of social parody and frivolity to be expected within these establishments. While Lionel Richard at the University of Picardy attributes these activities to social rebels (see Cabaret, Cabarets: Origines et décadence, 1991), Jerrold Seigel at New York University views it as a calculated new relationship between the popular classes and the bourgeoisie where the aspiring artist, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, could create art for potential customers (see Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, 1986). For T. J. Clark, the cabaret’s diverse audience as a venue for some form of cultural democracy by way of a mixing of classes is illusory (see “The Bar at the Folies-Bergères,” The Wolf and the Lamb: Popular Culture in France, From the Old Régime to the Twentieth Century, 1977). Charles Rearick of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, casts an eye on those frivolous aspects of the Montmartre cabarets, dance halls, and literary cafés. His conclusion is that these activities allowed a Parisian to escape modern society’s social constraints of respectability typically found everywhere else (see Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment & Festivity in Turn-Of-The-Century France, 1985). Phillip Dennis Cate at The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University viewed the role of cabarets in the artistic context of these bohemian antics being the genesis of what became twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetics (see The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, 1996). It is the affirmation of the values of spontaneous experience and direct communication as an integral aspect of the modern experience and, for the fin-de-siècle bohemian, parodic performances which helped criticize the official art establishment that carried forward into artistic attitudes in the new century.
The fruit of reflection for this late-nineteenth-century artistic period in Paris is numerous and diverse. It leads to the observation—whether of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or the variety of subjects in his mass-produced commercial art—that the stereotype of the artist, poet, or performer as bohemian, owing to their psychological nuance and stylistic antisepsis as aesthetic modernity—and possibly its inverse—becomes a source for their estrangement and alienation from modernity—that is, to emerge as an alienated human figure detached from their society and time. With Toulouse-Lautrec’s sixth poster (Divan Japonais, 1893) it is clear that his mass-produced commercial poster art in Paris was making an important impact on modern art in the 1890’s. It was a new art form for its deploying the rapidly developing technique of color printing. It utilized new approaches to composition and subject matter which were created for a mixture of new and popular commercial establishments. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, they became the first regularly displayed art commodity for public mass consumption. Each of these art principles and practices found in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of the 1890’s continue to impact contemporary art-making today.
1. Moulin Rouge-La Goulue is a lithograph done in 4 colors: yellow, blue, red, and black. The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 and, in summer 1891, the poster was commissioned by its owners. It depicts La Goulue (“The Glutton”) who is 21-year-old Louis Weber (1870-1929) and Valentin-le-Désossé (“the Boneless”) (1843-1907). This is Toulouse-Lautrec’s first, largest, and many estimate, most complex and artistically important poster. Printed by Charles Levy, it is made up of two sheets although Toulouse-Lautrec thought the printer had made mistakes and didn’t use him again. When this poster was plastered around Paris, the artist knew that his own silhouetted profile could be found in the background of silhouetted figures. The art of the streets pioneered by Jules Chéret (1836-1932) and immediately recognized for its implications by writers such as the Goncourt brothers and J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) Lautrec exploited in the 1890’s aided by technological advances in color printing that continued to improve throughout the decade.
2. The poster Le Pendu is a lithograph done in 2 colors: black and dark green. It was commissioned by a magazine editor to publicize a new theater play. Based on a true story of a wrongful capital death, the poster depicts the son’s suicide. Created in charcoal in late 1891, it was printed in 1895 in a limited edition for collectors only.
3. The poster Ambassadeurs Aristide Bruant is a lithograph in 5 colors yellow, blue, red, black, and olive green. Aristide Bruant (1851-1923) was a singer and this was a promotional poster for a café concert that opened in June 1892. The poster appeared all over Paris and on stage during the performance. The café owner thought the poster was a “disgusting mess” and refused to hang it until Bruant threatened to cancel his show. The subject wears a heavy dark velvet jacket, red shirt scarf, and wide brimmed hat with a riding crop. His head rises out of a dark mass which is lifted wholesale from a Japanese print by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792).
4. The poster Eldorado Aristide Bruant is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, yellow, red, blue, and black). It includes the letters “TL” and signed monogram which will appear on other posters. The poster was created for the singer’s event on Boulevard de Strasbourg (north of Boulevard Montmartre at Sebastopol). With the same but reversed design, the customer and artist cut poster costs while increasing brand identity. In modern art the figure of the imposing heroic individual performer was new and Bruant became an overnight celebrity that year in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec made no money on this project because the café owners were shocked by its content and refused to pay him.
5. The poster Reine de Joie is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, yellow, red, and black). It includes the emblematic letters “TL” and is signed. The poster was an advertisement for a suggestive new serialized novel by Victor Joze (1861-1933) and depicted the moment in the novel when the heroine kisses a fat banker, the latter being modeled by Georges Lasserre, a Lautrec friend. The poster, also used as the novel’s cover, caused a scandal across Paris and prompted a poster tear-down campaign. Speculation ran rampant as to who might be the real-life personalities on which characters in the novel were based.
6. The poster Divan Japonais (1892-93) is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, yellow, red, and black). The cabaret on rue des Martyrs came under new ownership in 1892 and was totally refurbished in a trendy Japanese style. The poster depicts 24-year-old Jane Avril (1868-1943) with critic Edouard Dujarden (1861-1949) in the cabaret. On stage are shown the long black gloves of new singer Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944). In a stylistic move, the artist cuts off Guilbert’s head and shoulders in the poster much to the consternation of the young singer just getting started in her career. (She later commissioned a poster by another artist to depict her complete figure). When this poster went up all over Paris it created a sensation and was another triumph for Lautrec. In 1894 the Divan Japonais closed to be replaced by another establishment. As with his other posters, there were several preliminary sketches the artist made for Divan Japonais. The posters used the new and improving popular mechanical technique of color printing and applied it to commercial establishments and popular entertainers, subject matter usually reserved for cruder forms of advertisement.
Divan Japonais is one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s early posters. In his poster career the artist usually used anywhere from 2 to 5 colors. It is signed by Toulouse Lautrec. This Montmartre cabaret was taken over in 1892 by a new owner and totally refurbished in the avant-garde Japanese style which was the inspiration for the cabaret’s name. By February 1893 when this sixth poster was made by Lautrec and put up all around Paris, his 5 previous posters had already made him famous.
7. The poster Jane Avril is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, yellow, orange, red, and black). The same subject who appeared in Divan Japonais, Jane Avril commissioned this poster for her performance at the Jardin de Paris, a new café-concert. The letters for the name of the establishment were added later by someone other than Lautrec. The artist first produced 20 collector prints and after, with its newly-added letters, the poster went into mass production. Known as La Mélinite—a type of explosive—Jane Avril looked to this poster to reinvigorate her career as a performer in Paris. The poster helped her to take Paris by storm as she went on to perform at the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergères. In terms of composition, the poster is noteworthy for its strong diagonals inspired by Japanese prints and the detail of a large musical instrument—including the meticulously drawn hairs of a musician’s fingers—which rounds out the design and is seen as homage to Degas who used a similar motif in his artwork.
8. The poster Aristide Bruant Dans Son Cabaret is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, brown, red, and black). Lautrec’s third image of the singer became a Parisian icon. From the poster’s inception the singer used this image to promote his appearances—and for the next twenty years until 1912.
9. The poster Au Pied De L’Echafaud is a lithograph in 4 colors (grey, red-brown, red, and black). The poster was an advertisement for the memoirs of a prison chaplain published in 1893.
10. The poster Caudieux is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, yellow, red and black). Lautrec depicts Caudieux, who was a popular cabaret comedian, to be striding across the stage. Lautrec used the partial figure in the prompt box in other artwork.
11. The poster Bruant Au Miriton is a lithograph in 2 colors (olive green or black and red). Represented with his back to the viewer, the popular performer is identified simply by his costume and the way he stands. This artistic device had already been used by Degas based on a theory by an art critic that a person’s economic and social class could be revealed simply by the way he or she comports themselves. The poster was recycled by Bruant as a songbook cover.
12. The poster Babylone D’Allemagne is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, yellow, red, dark blue and black). This was Lautrec’s second poster for another Victor Joze novel following his Reine de Joie. Lautrec wrote to his mother at this time to relate how busy he was with his art projects. Because of Joze’s anti-German message in the book, the author wanted the poster suppressed but it went up all over Paris nonetheless.
13. The poster L’Artisan Moderne is a lithograph in 4 colors (dark blue, yellow, green, and brown). The lettering is not done by Lautrec. Because of the impact of the cabaret and book posters, Lautrec began to be commissioned to make posters for the trades. This poster was provided to an interior design firm.
14. The poster P. Sescau, Photographe is a lithograph in 4 colors (dark red, yellow, green, and dark blue). The lettering is not done by Lautrec. This poster was provided to Paul Sescau, a professional photographer and personal friend of the artist.
15. The poster Confetti is a lithograph in 3 colors (dark olive green, red and yellow). This is Lautrec’s poster for the English paper manufacturer Bella & de Malherbe. The model is Jeanne Granier (1852-1939). These paper manufacturers hosted poster exhibitions in 1894 and 1896 to which Lautrec was invited.
16. The poster May Belfort is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive black, red and yellow). Following his trades posters Lautrec returned to the subject of the single musical performer. May Egan (whose stage name was May Belfort) was an Irish singer who appeared at the Cabaret des Décadents where Jane Avril performed.
17. The poster La Revue Blanche is a lithograph in 4 colors (blue, red, black, and green). The subject is Misia Natanson (1872-1950) who was married to Thadée Natanson whose brother was editor of La Revue Blanche from 1891 to 1903. Misia was muse to a generation of avant-garde artists, composers, and writers as the publication itself was the remarkable meeting point for the Paris literary and artistic worlds in the 1890’s. Lautrec shows Misia wearing an ostrich feather hat, spotted dress, fur jacket and muff and ice skating which was a popular activity in Paris. Two preparatory drawings for this poster are known.
18. The poster May Milton is a lithograph in 5 colors (blue, red, black, yellow and olive green). This poster was never posted in Paris but produced as an advertisement in a magazine to promote the U.S. tour of May Milton, an English dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Picasso owned a copy of this poster and used some of its compositional elements in his own artwork. Art dealers would commission limited editions of black-and-white lithographs of performers such as May Milton because they sold quickly.
19. The poster Napoleon is a lithograph in 5 colors (blue, reddish brown, black, yellow and olive green). Toulouse-Lautrec produced this poster for a book cover competition that he lost. Failing to sell this artwork, the artist produced a limited edition of 100 copies at the artist’s expense. The artist’s fee for his poster artwork varied a good deal, although during his career Lautrec clearly made more money from the output of his graphic work than his paintings.
20. The poster Salon Des Cents is a lithograph in 6 colors (blue, dark blue, black, yellow, ochre, and red). This poster is Lautrec’s homage to a married woman he met and became infatuated with during a summer cruise in 1895. The young woman sits in a deck chair under an awning facing out to sea. He produced the poster at his rentrée to Paris that fall and used it for international poster exhibitions sponsored by the journal La Plume at the Salon des Cent during winter 1895-96 and later in 1896 at the Libre Esthétique exhibition in Brussels.
21. The poster The Chap Book is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, blue, yellow, pink and red). The lettering is not done by Lautrec. The artist used the setting of an Irish-American bar near Place Madeleine in Paris to promote The Chap Book, an American magazine. Along with its identifiable characters, Lautrec includes the image of a bartender preparing a cocktail which was a libation newly introduced to Paris.
22. The poster La Chatelaine, Ou ‘Le Tocsin’ is a lithograph in 2 colors (blue and blue-green). This poster was commissioned by former Republican politician and Editor-in-chief Arthur Huc (1854-1932) to advertise a novel by Jules de Gastyne (1847-1920) which appeared in his newspaper in popular serial form in 1895. Letters were added by others after copies of the poster were printed for collectors of Lautrec’s increasingly popular artwork.
23. The poster Troupe De Mlle Églantine is a lithograph in 4 colors (green-blue, red, yellow and dark brown). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This was commissioned by Jane Avril for her work in London at the Palace Theatre and elsewhere. The formation dance was comprised of four identified dancers including Mlle Églantine and Jane Avril and derived from the famous French can-can.
24. The poster La Vache Enragée is a lithograph in 5 colors (dark blue, green-blue, red, yellow and black). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This was an advertisement for a new monthly magazine founded by Adolphe Willette (1857-1926). Its editor, Adolphe Roedel, organized an annual parade through Montmartre called the Vachalcade to lampoon the artist’s state of life in a major urban center.
25. The poster Elles is a lithograph in 4 colors (yellow, dark green, orange and blue). Later lettering is not designed by Lautrec. Degas would visit a Paris brothel to sketch its denizens, but Lautrec moved in for weeks at a time to do his artwork. Elles is a series of lithographs of the lives of prostitutes. Although considered some of the finest of lithographs of the nineteenth century, its portfolio of prints could not find collectors and they had to be sold singly. An exhibition of the complete lithographic series was held at La Plume starting in April 1896 where Lautrec adapted Elles’ title-page lithograph as the poster to advertise the show.
26. The poster L’Aube is a lithograph in 2 colors (dark blue and blue-green). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This was another advertisement for a new journal, the leftist L’Aube, first published in 1896. After its printing, the printer and artist had a rafter of remainders of this poster which they tried to sell for next to nothing.
27. The poster Cycle Michael is a lithograph in 1 color (olive green). Bicycling had developed into a cult sport in France by the 1890’s. Lautrec’s interest in the new sport led to this poster commission of British cyclist Jimmy Michael with his trainer (left background) and a sports writer with a hand in his coat pocket. The bicycle company rejected Lautrec’s design in part because the depiction of its mechanics was inaccurate which left the artist to print a limited edition for collectors at his own expense.
28. The poster La Chaîne Simpson is a lithograph in 3 colors (red, yellow and blue). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This is Lautrec’s second poster for the new sport of bicycling which had become immensely popular in France in the 1890’s. It depicts popular rider Constant Huret (left) and, in the background wearing hats, two British and French bicycle and chain manufacturers. Lautrec was fascinated with the cycling sport and its imagery appears in other of his artwork.
29. The poster The Ault & Wiborg Co is a zincograph in 4 colors (brown, red, yellow and black). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. The smallest of Lautrec’s posters, it was commissioned by an American ink manufacturer whose sitters are not precisely identified. Before it became a poster advertisement, Lautrec had an edition of it printed which he titled Au Concert.
30. The poster Jane Avril is a zincograph in 4 colors (black, red, yellow and blue). After six years of intense poster production, Lautrec temporarily left its practice in 1897 and 1898. When he returned to it in 1899 he found that technology had advanced to make the printing technique for his artwork more efficient. This poster was commissioned by Jane Avril but never publicly displayed. Lautrec looked to capture her dancing style and graceful and wistful figure which the artist admired. The serpentine-themed dress Jane Avril wears was a popular motif in the Art Nouveau.
31. The poster La Gitane is a lithograph in 5 colors (black, grey, red, brown and blue). The lettering is designed by Lautrec. Lautrec’s last poster was produced for a Carmen-like play that opened in January 1900 at the Théâtre Antoine in the tenth arrondissment. The play was unpopular, the poster never published, and Lautrec’s modern art poster career had come to an end.
Ash, Russell, Toulouse-Lautrec:The Complete Posters, Pavilion Books Limited, London, 1991.
Beauroy, Jacques, Bertrand, Marc, Gargan, Edward T., editors, The Wolf and the Lamb: Popular Culture in France, From the Old Régime to the Twentieth Century, Anma Libri, Saratoga, CA, 1977.
Cate, Phillip Dennis, The Color Revolution: Color Lithography in France, 1890-1900, Peregrine Smith, Inc., Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City, 1978.
Cate, Phillip Dennis and Shaw, Mary, editors, The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996.
Denvir, Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991.
Gluck, Mary, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.
Foxwell, Chelsea, Leonard, Anne, et.al. Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2012.
Oberthur, Mariel, Cafés and Cabarets of Montmartre, Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, 1984.
Rearick, Charles, Pleasures of the Belle Époque: Entertainment & Festivity in Turn-Of-The-Century France, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1985.
Seigel, Jerrold, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, Penguin Books, New York, 1986.
Thory-Frèches, Claire, Roquebert, Anne, Thomson, Richard, Toulouse-Lautrec, South Bank Center, 1991.
Weisberg, Gabriel P., Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture, Rutgers University Press, News Brunswick, New Jersey and London. 2001.
Text ©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.
Photographs and Text ©John P. Walsh
N.B. At this blog post’s publishing in July 2016, Aristide Maillol’s Enchained Action — a torso cast in bronze and created in 1905 in France — enjoyed a lengthy though indeterminate time on the Women’s Board Grand Staircase at the Chicago art museum. In 2017 the torso was removed by museum curators and placed in an undisclosed location out of public view. At this writing, it has been replaced by Richard Hunt’s Hero Construction (1958).
Text and photographs by John P. Walsh.
In September 2016 the Musée Maillol re-opens in Paris following its unfortunate closure due to poor finances earlier in the year. Under the new management team of M. Olivier Lorquin, president of the Maillol Museum, and M. Bruno Monnier, chairman of Culturespaces, the museum’s new schedule calls for two major exhibitions each year which will look to honor the modernist legacy of the artist, Aristide Maillol (French, 1861-1944) and the museum’s founder, Maillol’s muse, Dina Vierny (1919-2009).
This photographic essay called “Encountering Maillol” is constituted by 34 photographs taken by the author in The Art Institute of Chicago from 2013 to 2016 of the artistically splendid and historically notable sculpture Enchained Action by Maillol and random museum patrons’ reactions when viewing it. The impressive bronze female nude from 1905 stands almost four feet tall atop a plain pedestal which greets every visitor who ascends the Grand Staircase from the Michigan Avenue entrance. Enchained Action is one of Maillol’s earliest modernist sculptures and is doubtless filled by a dynamism not encountered anywhere else in his oeuvre.1
Modelled in France in 1905 by a 44-year-old Maillol who by 1900 had abandoned Impressionist painting for sculpture (first in wood, then in bronze) Enchained Action is one of the artist’s most impressive early sculptures. From the start of his sculptural work around 1898 until his death in 1944, the female body, chaste but sensual, is Maillol’s central theme. What can be seen in Enchained Action expresses the intensity in his early sculptural work which is not found later on—particularly the artist’s natural dialogue among his experimental works in terracotta, lead, and bronze each of which is marked by an attitude of robust energy expressed in classical restraint and modernist simplicity. Enchained Action exhibits Maillol’s early facility for perfection of form within a forceful tactile expression which deeply impressed his first admirers such as Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917) and André Gide (1869-1951) and cannot fail to impress the museum goer today.2 By force of this new work in the first decade of the twentieth century, Maillol started on the path of becoming an alternative to and, dissonant heir of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).3
Maillol’s early sculptural work is important for what it is—and is not. Modeled around three years after he completed his first version of La Méditerranée in 1902 in terracotta and for which his wife posed—a major modernist achievement of a seated woman in an attitude of concentration—and whose radically revised second version was exhibited at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, Enchained Action forms part of Maillol’s revolution for sculpture starting around 1900. Maillol made a radical break with neoclassicism and stifling academicism with its strange blend of realism and mythological forms—and with a rising generation of young sculptors such as Joseph Bernard (1866-1931), Charles Despiau (1874-1946) and Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929)—blazed a new path for sculpture. Except for Maillol, all these young sculptors worked in menial jobs for Rodin. Because of Maillol’s chosen artistic distance from Rodin’s work, Maillol did not need to react to it and so rapidly achieved his own new style as soon as 1905, the year of Enchained Action.
Maillol’s concept and primary approach to the beauty of the human body was to simplify and subdue forms. This pursuit began in early 1900 and advanced until the artist’s first time outside France on his trip to Greece in 1908 with Count Kessler (1868-1937). An important early sculpture—Recumbent Nude, 1900—was cast with the help of his lifelong friend Henri Matisse (1869-1954). This friendship had ramifications for the Art Institute’s Enchained Action in that it was purchased from Henri Matisse’s son, art dealer Pierre Matisse in 1955 right after his father’s death. While it would prove quaint for The Art Institute of Chicago to install Maillol’s limbless torso of Enchained Action on The Grand Staircase to pay homage or evoke the Louvre’s Winged Victory or Venus de Milo, it is historically significant so to embody Maillol’s artistic outlook in 1905 for his new sculpture, of which Enchained Action is an example. In the years between 1900 and 1908, Maillol searched beyond realism and naturalism to create sculpture with an abstract anatomical structure that jettisoned the sign language of physical gestures which are emotional and where limbs could be problematic for Maillol’s end design. The human torso of Enchained Action foregoes limbs and head to alone embody and convey the artist’s import for it.4
On The Art Institute of Chicago’s Grand Staircase Enchained Action displays Maillol’s sensitive surface modeling capturing human flesh’s animation and sensual power more than its suppleness as found in Italian masters such as Bernini –such difference serves Maillol’s purpose for his subject matter. The torso is differently pliant—toned, muscular, and strident. It displays the humana ex machina whose stance and posture express the modern hero’s defiance and whose nakedness retains the beauty uniquely imbued in the female human body. Enchained Action is a different work altogether than every work Maillol modeled and cast up to 1905. His art progresses in experimentation by its direct interface with politics. Enchained Action is not only an artwork but a political artwork where Maillol empowers both spheres. For today’s viewer who reacts to nudity in art with the shame of eroticism, they may see (or avoid seeing) its sprightly breasts, taut stomach, and large buttocks of Enchained Action only in that mode. The museum limits such visitors to this narrow viewpoint because they do not explain to them Maillol’s artful technique, conceptual artistic revolution by 1905, or unique political and socioeconomic purpose for this imposing artwork in plain view.
With an aesthetic interest established for Enchained Action—for it signals a break with the artistic past and the birth of modern sculpture in its abstraction – a question is posed: what are the political and socioeconomic purposes for this work? Its original and full title reveals a radical social implication: Torso of the Monument to Blanqui ([En] Chained Action). Abbreviated titles—and such appear at The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Torso of Chained Action) and in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris (L’Action enchaînée)—neatly avoids or even voids the sculpture’s original radical social message. Maillol’s Enchained Action is dedicated it to the French socialist revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881).
In 1905 Maillol’s Enchained Action was a public monument honoring the centenary of Blanqui’s birth and consolidation of the French socialist movement that same year into the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), a single leftist political party that was replaced by the current Socialist Party (PS) in 1969. Given this background a visitor may simply stare at or bypass the torso but perhaps for reasons of politics rather than eroticism. The title omission—first promoted by André Malraux in 1964 for the Tuileries’ copy—does disservice to Maillol’s accomplishment and its full title should be restored. The Metropolitan has an incomplete title but on thee label includes information on Blanqui and clearly states their version was cast in 1929. The Art Institute of Chicago’s casting date for the torso is obscure. For a better appreciation of the artwork, familiarity with its social and political historical context is important to locate the intended nature of the energy expressed in it. Torso of the Monument to Blanqui ([En] Chained Action) is a figure study of a strident naked female torso and an expression of radical politics in France at the turn of the last century.
By 1905 Maillol’s new sculptural work attracted important collectors. Rodin introduced Maillol that year to Count Kessler at the Paris gallery of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) and to other progressive writers, art critics, and painters. Maillol’s work was a new art form for a new century. It was in 1905 that Paris friends, among them Anatole France (1844-1924), Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926), Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) and Octave Mirbeau, approached Maillol to persuade the avant-garde artist to accept a commission for the politically sectarian Blanqui monument. It would be a tribute très moderne to a fierce socialist revolutionary but and the entire Blanqui family tradition which had voted to guillotine Louis XVI in the French Revolution and plotted against each ruling regime in France afterwards. Immense confidence was placed in Maillol by these bold turn-of-the-century intelligentsia and by the artist himself who came from a generation that came to believe they were the torchbearers of a new art.
In France public opinion was frequently divided on art matters. When Rodin agreed to Maillol’s commission—he wanted Camille Claudel to do it, but she had become seriously psychotic by 1905—the older sculptor admired and purchased Maillol’s new sculpture—in addition to experiencing his own deep familiarity with the vagaries of creating public monuments. Committee members, by and large left-wing sympathizers, made a favorable impression on Maillol who agreed to do the work. On July 10, 1905, Maillol promised Georges Clemenceau, “I’ll make you a nice big woman’s ass and I’ll call it Liberty in Chains.”5 After that, Maillol’s new sculpture—a symbolic monument to a political revolutionary erected in October 1908 under protest of town leaders on the main square of Blanqui’s native village of Puget-Théniers in the south of France—became the subject of unending intense scrutiny. How to respond to a large and powerful standing figure, tense and in motion where human struggling is borne to the edge of absorbing mute serenity by restraint of chains symbolizing Blanqui’s thirty years in jails by successive French governments?6 In the first ten days of working on the new commission, Maillol made three small sketches and two maquettes of an armless torso followed by other preliminary work. He finished a final clay version in 1905 whose contemplative intimacy reflected socialist Jean Jaurès’s agenda for political life: “We are inclined to neglect the search for the real meaning of life, to ignore the real goals—serenity of the spirit and sublimity of the heart … To reach them—that is the revolution.”7 Sixty-five-year-old Rodin whose critical judgment of the new sculpture which undertook to streamline art forms to the point of austerity against Rodin’s “monstrous subjects, filled with pathos” remarked tersely on Enchained Action.8 Although Maillol saw this public monument as more reliant than ever on Rodin’s concepts, M. Rodin after seeing it was reported to ambiguously mutter: “It needs looking at again.”9
It may be better to judge Enchained Action inside its historical moment. Former Metropolitan curator Preston Remington (1897-1958) praised his museum’s copy of the torso calling it “splendid” and “impeccable” in its observation of the human form. Yet he concludes that it is “essentially typical” of the sculptor for it “transcends the realm of visual reality.”10 Enchained Action displays none of the delicacy, awkwardness, luminosity, or calm of the artist’s earlier sculptures and predates major developments in Maillol’s oeuvre after 1909 which differs extensively from that of Enchained Action11 and for which is based much of the artist’s legacy, even by 1929 when Remington is writing. Is it fair to identify Enchained Action as “essentially typical” even as it sublimates form? Viewed in 1905—a watershed year for modern art, including an exhibition of Henri-Matisse’s first Fauvist canvases at the Salon des Indépendents and at the Salon d’Automne—Enchained Action became that year Maillol’s largest sculptural statement to date. The commission, while relying on Rodin’s concepts in its depiction of strenuous physical activity—a quality Preston Remington recognized as “exceptional” in the torso and yet as a critical judgment ambiguous as to whether it refers to Maillol’s reliance on Rodin—afforded Maillol further confidence to execute his monumental art after 1905 for which today he is famous. While for Mr. Remington the representative quality of Enchained Action was what he sought for a museum collection, its exceptional qualities in values that are literally not “essentially typical” for the sculptor.
The complete final figure of Monument to Blanqui([En] Chained Action)—and not only the torso that is displayed on the Grand Staircase of The Art Institute of Chicago—depicts a mighty and heroic woman struggling to free herself from chains binding her hands from behind. Both of these “complete” versions are in Paris and found in the Jardin des Tuileries and in the Musée Cognacq-Jay. Maillol’s later studies for Enchained Action commenced without its head and legs that expressed a heightened anatomical intensity in place of Rodin-like strife.12 Chicago and New York each have a bronze replica of the torso. The Tate Britain has one in lead. Following the Great War, Maillol’s Monument to Blanqui ([En] Chained Action) standing for 14 years in Puget-Théniers’ town square was taken down in 1922 so to erect a monument aux morts. During World War II fearing that the extant original sculpture would be melted down for Nazi bullets, Henri Matisse purchased it from Puget-Théniers and gave it to the city of Nice. The original bronze was saved and now stands in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.13
By John P. Walsh
By 1887 Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) had created over 50 ceramic sculptures as well as several carved decorative panels, so during his time in Paris between 1893 and 1895 it may be expected that he would create a woodcut based on his most recent and important discovery of the Paris interval: his hideous Oviri.
Gauguin made a large ceramic of Oviri (fig. 13) – the Tahitian name translates as “wild” or “savage” and more recently as “turned into oneself” – in the winter of 1894-1895. The artist submitted it to the annual exhibition of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts for April 1895. When Gauguin discovered this mysterious figure who holds a blunted she-wolf, crushing the life out of her cub – occasionally understood as a symbol of female sexual potency – he did not let her go.55 In this print impression– and he made 19 prints from the same wood block, none of which are exactly alike – Gauguin’s Oviri is encountered in the primeval forest as inky blackness. The ceramic, envisioned by the artist as a savage, modern funerary monument (fig.14), was rejected by the judges for inclusion into the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Gauguin’s latest Tahiti-inspired art was deemed too ugly even by an organization of artists that, since its renewed inception in 1890, is seen as Europe’s first Secessionist movement. Although Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a founding member of the group and since 1891 working on his commission from the Société de Gens Lettres for a Paris Balzac statue (that “obese monstrosity”) it was ceramist Ernst Chaplet who insisted on Gauguin’s admittance.56
Where exactly the ceramic Oviri was displayed in the salon is unclear, but its subsequent route into the Musée d’Orsay in 1987 is highly circuitous.57 Gauguin often exploited favorite images by repeating them in various media – and the ceramic transposed to the print depicts his goddess showering a black light that blots out most of the natural reality around her. In one more Gauguin print from this time period that fits in the palm of the hand, the artist offers a splendor of darkness, the mystery of a palm frond forest, and a stark confrontation with Oviri who is, as Gauguin described to Stéphane Mallarmé on the poet’s version of the print, “a strange figure, cruel enigma.”58
©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.
By John P. Walsh
For some pieces of graphic art Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) uses the moniker “P.Go.” to sign them.52 In Tahitian Idol-The Goddess Hina (fig.9), it is present in the lower left corner slightly on its side. While Day of the Gods, painted in Paris in 1894 at the same time as the woodcut, received a simple signature of “Gauguin” (the painting was not exhibited in the artist’s lifetime), Gauguin sometimes used these new graphic art works as “image translations” to explain his Tahitian art to the Parisian public. This may explain the pretension of the anagram here.53
Gauguin’s obsession with the primitive, the savage, is evident in this work. The small woodcut is an image of a Tahitian goddess where the composition’s diverse elements congeal to a single mask to be held in the palm of one’s hand. Goddess Hina, immobile and august, is fitted into the composition as a first among equals. A tree fills the left border like a totem with a V-formed sprout. At the woodcut’s top border – and peering out of a branch at the tree trunk’s crux – is a profile of an evil spirit represented by a head. The grassy hair of the goddess fills about half the background and falls to nestle by her left arm. Gauguin uses several stock elements in different attitudes or positions. For example, he used the evil head in the 1892 painting Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil) (fig.10) and this woodcut’s symbolism likewise remains complex. In the woodcut, to Goddess Hina’s right and immediately below the malevolent spirit who materializes in strange and frightening humanoid forms, appear abstracted forms of a coiled snake and other ceremonial visages. Goddess Hina is primitive and statuesque whereas the evil head possesses a sinister aspect with circles that serve as open eyes.
When Gauguin wrote from Tahiti in March 1899 to Belgian Symbolist poet and critic André Fontainas with reflections on the South Seas, he expressed strong feelings of awe, personal vigil, and dream-like vision. Such qualities must have been experienced on his first Tahiti trip for they permeate a work like Tahitian Idol – The Goddess Hina:
“Here near my hut, in utter silence, I dream of violent harmonies in the natural fragrances that exhilarate me. A pleasure heightened by an indefinable sacred awe which I divine towards the immemorial. In bygone days, an odor of joy that I breathe in the present. Animal figures in statuesque rigidity: something inexpressibly old, august, religious in the rhythm of their gesture, in their rare immobility. In dreaming eyes, the cloudy surface of an unfathomable enigma. And here is nightfall – everything is at rest. My eyes close in order to see without understanding the dream in the infinite space that recedes before me, and I have a sense of the doleful march of my hopes.”54
In a work of approximately 5 x 4 inches―and its small size in no way diminishes its artistic force―Gauguin achieves in Tahitian Idol-The Goddess Hina a craftsman’s unity of good and evil in nature. Before his first visit to Tahiti Gauguin already had familiarity with this theme of nature’s duality for he uses it in his 1889 painting Self-Portrait (fig. 11) where halo and snake vie within and for creation.
©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.
MORE WORK BY PAUL GAUGUIN in THE FRANCE INTERLUDE:
By John P. Walsh
As Belgian critic Emile Verhaeren saw him, Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) produces “child art.”47 The artist’s anagram “P.Go.” looms large in the lower left hand corner making it plain that the 46-year-old Gauguin made this print. Gauguin’s use of color and form are significant as they build up the image of five women in a landscape―two foreground figures more fully defined than the three figures merging into the background. It is ambiguous whether it is a channel of water or grass that separates the two foreground women who appear to perform a rite of worship and a trio in conversation or, as Richard Brettell interprets, dancing.48 As the Seine flows through Paris where Gauguin created this print, there exists in Tahitian Landscape (fig. 5) a commentariat on the Right Bank and artisans spilling blood in their offerings on the Left Bank. Modeling of the three women has affinities with Ta Matete of 1892 (fig.6) as Gauguin uses the same flat, static figures that have been traced to Egyptian painting with the ethnological implication that the Polynesians’ origins are in mankind’s oldest civilizations.49
Fig. 5. Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Landscape, 1894 – watercolor monotype, with brush and watercolor, on cream wove paper, 8.66 x 9.72 inches (220 x 247 mm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward McCormick Blair collection.
Continual rhythm or “musicality” of bodily contours with intervening empty space gives Tahitian Landscape a Synthetist sensibility to the figures while its overall Symbolist ambiguity is a result of pale color and de-emphasized form. The figure of the woman on her knees to the right is engaged in a ritual bathing as Brettell believes or may be bowing before a vague natural stone construct (Brettel, however, denies any hint of religion). A pool of red flows at, or under, her chest that may represent bathing water as Brettell offers or perhaps a hint of light or shadow or, more intensely, the figure’s blood. Red appears again in one of the three dancing figures. In this landscape Gauguin allows for several possible interpretations.
Under close examination the artist seems to encourage bewilderment by producing a scene of ambiguity and mystery. If Gauguin acted as an ethnologist―as art critic and historian Roger Marx compared him in November 1893 – it would be impossible for the artist to depict an authentic blood sacrifice in Tahiti since, in the 1890s, it was prohibited by French law. The artist then dreams a scene in a Tahitian setting of a woman and her associates offering a savage blood sacrifice to a stone god. This piece asks questions about Gauguin’s attitude for Tahiti and sheds light on some of his deepest desires in Paris. The formulation of the sky, waters, and ground create a Synthetist landscape but it is the Symbolist figures and the mystery surrounding their presence that is the central power of the work. This use of mysterious figures in a landscape is found in Gauguin’s previous work in Martinique (“the land of the Creole gods”50 he wrote in a letter) and in Brittany (figs. 7 and 8).
In Tahitian Landscape, on the other side of the green, blue, and peach-color chasm heavily outlined on the right and halted by a built-up “shore,” the three dancing women who are barely modeled or detailed appear to be observed by an idol figure. It lies in blue shadow in dense foliage and is nearly invisible. As in Tahitians Fishing (see part 2 of “Savagery in Civilization…” ) it is by way of foliage, boulders, and rounded forms of the landscape that there emerges a similarity with the jigsaw puzzle-like lagoon in that same year’s Day of the Gods. However, the forms in Tahitian Landscape are flatter and less organic-looking. As popular graphic art methods could not produce the deliberately pale character of the surface Brettell proposes that this image was made as a transfer or counterproof on wetted paper from a now lost watercolor matrix.51
By John P. Walsh
To look at a selection of four prints produced by Paul Gauguin in Paris between his two long trips to Tahiti not only elucidates his artistic ideas but benefits by this brief commentary on his methods and techniques he used to make them. The consummate craftsman – even Gauguin’s modern art opponents largely conceded this point – his traced monotypes (also called watercolor transfer drawings or printed drawings) employed a simple but creatively unique process to offset his watercolor or gouache designs onto paper.
The first step in Gauguin’s process was to place slightly damp paper over his hand-drawn design and with the pressure he exerted from the back of an ordinary spoon the moisture in the paper and the water-based medium worked to transfer the reverse image of the design onto the paper. Gauguin could then reprint his design so that each would be variable images, imparting a pale, soft value to the work – outcomes the artist sought for these Tahitian pieces.
By 1898, back in Tahiti, Gauguin created a new print medium which was essentially a reversal of early Renaissance silverpoint. His new technique required Gauguin to apply a coat of ink to one sheet of paper, place a second sheet over it, and draw on the top sheet with pencil or crayon. The pressure of the drawing instrument transferred the ink from the first sheet of paper onto the back or verso side of the top sheet. Gauguin greatly admired his technical discovery and considered it an expression of “childlike simplicity.”
In this small work (fig. 1) the figures are flat, with little modeling or detail. The impact created is one of a dream. Gauguin presents a primitive world that is half-naked and childlike. In its Synthetist elements, it is reminiscent of a major painting he completed the year before, Fatata te Miti (By the Sea) (fig.2). It shares its flat colors, abstract shapes, and unbroken curves uniting to make an integrated decorative pattern. Yet Tahitians Fishing is a sketch. It is divided into distinct zones like Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua) (fig.3) created by Gauguin in the same years. The grassy foreground and sea/vegetation/sandy shore create two horizontal zones. These are bisected by a dominant vertical―a tree―that divides the piece into informal quadrants. The tree, a powerful element, is a void – a space of black ink – while its branches and roots are delineated with the same facile modeling as the rest of the composition. The pair of main roots and twelve or so ancillary roots sit ambiguously atop the grassy foreground with its childlike delineation of blades and sinks into sandy soil. The tree surrounds a naked squatting female, her bare breasts exposed. Is she hiding herself from a second woman working with a net in the area of sand and sea? This second worker is aided by three others who are perhaps completely nude figures that stand waist deep in water. Two are male but the third figure’s sex is uncertain as s/he is turned so the viewer sees only a naked back. There is very little personality to the figures. They are, instead, composition elements like cartoons.
In the time Gauguin was making Tahitians Fishing, he was working on the text and suite of ten wood block prints for his book Noa Noa. Tahitians Fishing also involves text and the visual image. Gauguin places a verse by living French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) into a visual work about Tahiti. This artistic admixture could be part of Gauguin’s reaction to one of Symbolist art’s major indictment by naturalist modern art critics – that it is preoccupied with ideas and should be subsumed exclusively into the domain of literature.41 Gauguin’s literary career began in the midst of this critical argument that predated his first departure to Tahiti and maintained itself at his return. From an artist who confronted disparate parts to create something new, Tahitians Fishing is a hybrid piece of Symbolist literary and visual elements using Gauguin’s obsession with Tahiti as its unifying theme. It indicates that the artist was reflecting on his Tahitian art, if not searching for more. Many Paris critics believed his art confused East and West. Gauguin gives validity to that belief by putting a poem at the top of the sheet in its own artistic “zone” and not straying into the visual image itself or making letters into art. While his pillaging from the Western world could set Gauguin’s critics alight, sympathizers saw his juxtapositions as a productive and creative artistic strategy.42 Verlaine’s nature poem – “Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà/Pleurant sans cesse./Dis, qu’as tu fait, toi que voilà/De ta jeunesse?”43 – provides another facet to Gauguin’s imposition of the Edenic dimension of good and evil onto the image.
Tahitians Fishing tested Gauguin’s powers to illustrate text which he was working on for Noa Noa, a phrase that means “perfume.” The Man with the Ax (fig.4), a print from this Paris period (1892/94) is a complex of thinned gouache and pen and black ink over pen and brown ink on dark tan wove paper and laid down on cream Japanese paper. At approximately 12 x 9 inches it is – by virtue of its tripartite landscape, stooping figure and monumental and vertical figure enclosed in Cloisonnist dark contour – a retrospective of work done in Tahiti between 1891 and 1893.
Tahitians Fishing is new as it reflects Tahiti and adds a contemporary French Symbolist text. It contains similarities in composition, theme, and figures to the forward-looking painting Day of the Gods. Both share the image of a “Savage Eve” figure which obsessed Gauguin throughout 1893 to 189544 and both have a dominant central vertical―a tree in Tahitians Fishing and an idol in Day of the Gods. Each has distinct horizontal zones and ground-and-water block-like forms. Even the amoeba-shaped waters in Day of the Gods are reflected in the steeply pitched water-as-sky in Tahitians Fishing. Maurice Denis identified Gauguin by his bright, unnatural colors45, but this exercise piece is more than that. It explores compositional forms and themes of his Tahitian and Synthetist works and includes avant-gardist French Symbolist verse. Gauguin’s work in these pieces is not always simply, as Julien Leclerq wrote in December 1894, “(the) transposing into another medium motifs from his Tahitian works.”46 Gauguin may have used this particular Verlaine poem if he was anywhere outside Paris, but it seems less likely. He continued to experiment with mixing text and visual image, a courageous act in the face of conservative critics who, with artists Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, castigated Gauguin for the repetitive elaboration and recombination of pictorial ideas. On the recto side of this work no signature of any sort is detectable.
By John P. Walsh
In May 1894 during a working visit to Brittany filled with nostalgia, a 45-year-old Paul Gauguin broke his leg above the ankle in a scuffle with sailors in broad daylight. In France just nine months after being away in French Polynesia for over two years, Gauguin was spotted playing the role of bohemian artist in Concarneau, an old fishing port which had become a busy international art colony. Gauguin made an attractive target in his outlandish attire and shoulder-length hair huddled with a coterie of young art disciples, a pet monkey, and a Ceylonese child mistress whose dark skin offended late-nineteenth-century social norms as much as her age.1
Exhibiting his penchant for questioning prevailing assumptions and bringing to Brittany the easy sexual standards he experienced in Tahiti, a dissolute Gauguin now paid for his personal freedom with serious bodily harm. The violent incident added to the changed relations Gauguin found for himself in France since his return to his homeland in late August 1893. After his 27-month artistic exile in the middle of the South Pacific starting in April 1891, the midcareer artist strove to re-establish ties among dealers, critics, collectors and artists in Paris. He had a misguided anticipation for sales of his new Tahitian paintings based on his past artistic triumphs and the handful of new Tahiti work he sent ahead of his arrival into France for exhibition in Paris to carry his objectives forward.2 In Brittany Gauguin’s injury required him to be hospitalized and put on morphine and alcohol as pain killers for a two-month recuperation. By late August 1894 Gauguin’s leg had healed where he traveled to nearby Quimper for his assailants’ trial. The artist had sued the ruffians for 3,000 francs, but local justice meted out a small fine.3
Gauguin did not rest on his laurels or his recent injury. Rather, since his return to France, Gauguin engaged himself almost nonstop in self-promotion on behalf of his new Tahitian art portfolio. During his recuperation Gauguin found he was unable to paint in his first full summer back in France in 1894. This was a hard irony since in his Tahitian work between 1892 and 1893 Gauguin was primarily a painter. In summer 1894 he turned to work exclusively on wood cuts and monotypes (the latter art form also called transfer drawings, watercolor transfer drawings, printed drawings, and traced monotypes). Working alone and with other artists from the Pont-Aven group, Gauguin experimented with new images, new arrangements and new applications without committing anything to oil. These print techniques ―different from etching which Gauguin found too dainty― afforded him the painterly effects, unusual textures and distorted forms that he sought and which his opponents in the modern art world vocally despised. For the sake of this post’s length and logic, a fuller presentation of four of these “savage” prints which Gauguin finished in Paris between 1893 and 1895 (among scores of others) can be discovered in a separate blog post. Excluding the collective power of his ten large and earliest woodcuts made for Noa Noa, no works of graphic art by Gauguin in this Paris period are more mysterious than the ones this article will consider – namely, Tahitians Fishing (involving Savage Eves), Tahitian Landscape (blood sacrifices), Tahitian Idol – The Goddess Hina (vying spirits in the natural world) and Oviri based on Gauguin’s ceramic sculpture.
In November 1894 when Gauguin was able to return from Brittany to Paris he opened the door to his studio to find that its two rooms had been ransacked save for own art work. It had been the undertaking of Gauguin’s Ceylonese mistress, called Annah la Javanaise, who had exacted her sense of savage justice on the man from France for her services.4
Following his passage from Tahiti into France on August 30, 18935, Paul Gauguin, virtually penniless, stayed in Paris with art historian Émile Schuffenecker with whom he had been estranged and by more than the High Seas.6 From fall 1892 into early spring 1893 Gauguin had been sending to Paris his new work from Tahiti ―nine canvases in total – including his first portrait of a Tahitienne, namely, Vahine no te Tiare of 1892 which today hangs in Copenhagen. Displayed in the Boulevard Montmartre gallery of Boussod, Valadon & Cie (the former Goupil & Cie),7 critical reaction to the portrait which was so important to Gauguin turned out to be mixed.8 The portrait might have served as a bellwether to Gauguin and those who paid attention to his work. Its tepid, divided response would mark the reception he received for his much larger Tahitian oeuvre in Paris between 1893 and 1895.
While Edgar Degas spoke well of and invested in Gauguin’s work, the two were not personally close.9 It was in conversation with younger artists and one older artist, Odilon Redon, that in January or February 1890 Gauguin was inspired to pursue the idea of a “Studio of the Tropics.” Although Redon by late summer of 1890 told Gauguin he was against his leaving France – whether to Madagascar, as first entertained, or as it happened, to Tahiti in April 1891, Gauguin was clearly not persuaded. Redon was convinced that Gauguin’s artistic development in Europe would be significant and appealed to Gauguin to reconsider.10 Gauguin wrote to Redon from Le Pouldu in September of 1890:
“…The reasons you give me for staying in Europe are more flattering than they are likely to convince me. My mind is made up…I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it…Here, Gauguin is finished, and nothing more will be seen of him…”11
In Tahiti Gauguin made his home in Papeete and soon after in Mataiea before he returned to Paris two years and three months later in August 1893. He stayed in the French capital for twenty-two months until a second departure for Tahiti in June 1895 when this time, indeed, nothing more would be seen of him (“My design, Gauguin wrote, “(is) to bury myself in the South Sea Islands.”)12 It could not be known until December 1894 that Gauguin had decided to return to Tahiti – although in 1894 his letters expressed longing for it.13 His time in Paris possessed a “liminal” quality in that he occupied a position at or on both sides of a boundary or threshold of Tahiti. From 1893 to 1895 in Paris Gauguin had two distinct worlds to draw on and consider for his art – one, an echo of Redon’s advice in 1890 to develop artistically in Europe and two, his memory of Tahiti from 1891 to 1893. The South Seas had imparted to Gauguin new images for him to paint that he could not find in France – and he worked to promote these discoveries and ruminate on them in current work. Unlike Brittany of which the artist was fond, Tahiti surrounded Gauguin with a strangeness that allowed his imagination to take greater hold of the mystery, savagery, and otherness that he increasingly sought to express in his artistic work. Both worlds can be found in Gauguin’s art of this Paris period – Tahiti in the new images based on primitiveness and savagery and France in the forms of Symbolism and Synthetism that Gauguin learned and helped lead after 1888. Each of these worlds – one definitely savage and the other civilized or also savage based on one’s art critical perspective in early 1890s Paris – informed the other in formal terms and the impressions inspired by the artist’s dreams, exaggerations and inventions.
Paul Gauguin had come back to France actually intending to stay14 but as time passed his connection to the faraway islands became too strong to forsake. At Café Escoffier in Paris on December 7, 1894, Gauguin announced his return to Tahiti and left France forever the following year. In those 660 days in France Gauguin worked to force rapid public acceptance of his work and ended up being all but shunned by the French public. Gauguin brought to Tahiti in 1891 the experience of all the art he had made in the late 1880s with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles and with Émile Bernard and Paul Sérusier in Brittany as well as his deep admiration for Redon’s noirs. Primitive culture in Polynesia, while truncated and absorbed into French rule, appealed to him and in the Paris interlude Gauguin obsessed about the island in his literature and art.15
Gauguin took the initiative to woo the French art-buying public and even the State to embrace the sixty-six paintings that comprised his Tahitian portfolio. His failure to take Paris by storm in this period― book-ended by a two-week commercial exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s in November 1893 and a Drouot auction on February 18, 1895 ―is blamed for his leaving for Tahiti the second and final time. These disappointments had a financial bearing – he sold only eleven of forty-one paintings from Tahiti at Durand-Ruel’s and just nine out of forty seven works at the Hôtel Drouot – but their apathetic reception affected more than a mercantile Gauguin. It is a historical irony that one of Gauguin’s unsold Tahitian paintings from this period – his 1892 double portrait “Nafea Faa Ipoipo” (When Will You Marry?)” – was sold in February 2015 by a Swiss family foundation to a group of state museums in Qatar for a record nearly $300 million. In 1893 the artist priced it at no higher than 3,000 francs or about $15,000 in 2015 dollars.
In art work Gauguin was preparing for the public and for his private rumination he continued his “searching deep within himself”16 begun in Tahiti with its exotic theme being paramount. Throughout the period of 1893 to 1895, in Paris and in Brittany, Gauguin escaped into a Tahitian world of his own imaginings by way of his highly experimental graphic work.17 Gauguin brought to Paris with him his notes and sketch books from Tahiti and meditated on them during the course of his Paris sojourn. He thought of these mementos as “my letters, my secrets”18 and one wonders about his intention to commercially exhibit these trial works. In summer 1894 Gauguin gave away some of his watercolors19 and while this action may serve as a memento or payment to a friend, it points to a tentativeness with which Gauguin viewed these first works. “The world I am discovering,” Gauguin wrote in a letter months later, “is a Paradise the outlines of which I shall have merely sketched out and between the sketch and the realization of the vision there is a long way to go.”20
Aside from around fifteen paintings he did in France from 1893 to 1895, Gauguin’s work is mainly (with some overlap in art forms) in the graphic arts and literature, including Noa Noa, Ancien Culte Mahorie, and Cahier Pour Aline. Starting in Paris during this period and until his death in May 1903, Gauguin worked to transform himself from an artist to an artist and writer. The general idea for this effort was not original to Gauguin; it may even be a reaction to his critics who derided him as a “writer’s painter” – that is, one who obscured his instinctive painterly talent with literary or ideal concerns. Criticism of Gauguin’s art for this specific reason was deep and extensive in 1890s France by many leading intellectuals who favored the prevailing Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist art forms which promoted a naturalist and modernist art and that Gauguin had abandoned in the late 1880s. Gauguin angered and annoyed artists and critics and they derided his current work forcefully. According to Félix Fénéon Gauguin’s art was unnatural, irrational and illogical and constituted a step backwards for modern art which had staked a secular, democratic, and progressive course. For Camille Pissarro and Impressionist artists such as Paul Signac – Gauguin’s Synthetist and Symbolist styles and forms were retrograde and should be actively resisted. “Let us study Delacroix, Corot, Puvis, Manet and leave those (other) humbugs to their own devices,”21 wrote Signac in 1895 about Monsieur Gauguin.
Although brief and contentious, Paris turned out to be a productive time for Gauguin’s art.22 In December 1893 following decent sales after his exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s, Gauguin wrote from Paris to his wife Mette in Copenhagen and pointedly did not discuss his earnings which likely netted him about 10,000 francs – or $50,000 in 2015 dollars.23 Gauguin talked around the money issue to reflect on his attitude for any future art world gambit which would likely be undertaken immediately. “My show,” Gauguin wrote to his faraway spouse, “has not in fact given the results that might have been expected but we must look facts in the face…The most important thing is that my exhibition had a very great artistic success, has even provoked passion and jealousy. The press has treated me …rationally, with words of praise. For the moment I am considered by many people to be the greatest modern painter.”24
Many viewers, however, were perplexed by the artist’s refusal to translate into French the Tahitian titles found in scores of his paintings. Others were amused by the bohemian role he had assumed for himself in astrakhan hat and gilet. Gauguin was obsessed with exhibiting his major Tahitian paintings, continuing to produce that kind of work in Paris and trying to explain this portfolio to the public through his studio invitations, writings, and “image translations.” He wanted to see his Tahitian work conquer the Paris art world.25 While many Parisians did not accept or understand Gauguin’s Tahiti art they were fascinated by it. The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened in May 1893 and closed just ten days before Gauguin’s Tahiti show opened at Durand-Ruel’s. The Chicago Fair, inspired by the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, showcased ethnological “villages” that attracted nearly thirty million people. Despite a set course for Impressionism as the parameter for modern art, Gauguin’s cutting-edge Tahiti art could not be ignored completely by Parisians who felt an intense curiosity about exotic locales, especially French Polynesia.26 In Paris Gauguin showed himself to be tireless to capitalize on this current passion. In his letters he ceaselessly complains, justifies his every action, demands extraordinary things of others and lays grand plans for himself because he believed his artistic career was on the verge of greatness but frustratingly incomplete. He poured his energy into his several artistic exhibitions in Paris and elsewhere, produced critical articles and letters for journals, and began to pull together his Tahiti adventures to write Noa Noa with his occasional friend Charles Morice. Morice added a preface, a chapter entitled “Songeries,” as well as the poems. Portions of Noa Noa (“pleasing fragrance”) appeared for the first time in La Revue Blanche, between October 15 and November 1, 1897, more than two years after Gauguin returned to Tahiti. Yet Gauguin used the writing project in late 1893 to excuse himself from traveling to Copenhagen to see his wife Mette.27
In Paris Gauguin produced a slew of graphic work and some painting and sculpture. His message from the French capital to his far off wife was interchangeable with what it had been from Tahiti: “I am up to my neck in work!” and that he needed money.28 Regardless of his committed efforts at self-promotion and artistic expansion in Paris – including all aspects of publicity, catalog production, and stock preparation for his Tahiti exhibitions as well as mending fences with old friends and rejoining social networks such as Stéphane Mallarmé’s “les jeudis”29 – criticism and sales receipts did not fulfill the artist’s hopes for his new art. Following Durand-Ruel’s, Gauguin in January 1894 rented a two-room studio on Rue Vercingétorix and fills it with his unsold art that amounted to dozens of paintings and sculptures as well as his current work, some flea-market exotica, and an ethnographic collection. He famously decorated the walls in chrome yellow and olive green―reminiscent of Pierre Loti’s residence in western France with its valuable Far Eastern art collection30― and invited friends to share in his les mardis where they played music, told travel stories, and the host read from his work-in-progress, Noa Noa. 31
One question asked about Gauguin’s Tahitian and Tahitian-inspired oeuvre was which of it is strictly Tahitian and which is western influenced – or, what is direct observation and what is artifice? Exceptional global coordinates did not prevent Gauguin’s first Tahitian experience from 1891 to 1893 to have a European and specifically French flavor. At Durand-Ruel’s exhibition one critic traced the origins of Gauguin’s Ia Orana Maria of 1891, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to a late-1870s work by Jules Bastien-Lepage. In the French press he scoffed at Gauguin’s canvas as “nothing but a Bastien-Lepage done Tahitian style.”32 This sort of critical charge underscores the ground-breaking nature of Gauguin’s art as it introduced primitivism into the European cosmopolitan avant-garde at the turn of the century. Tahiti was an official French colony since 1880 and like most Frenchmen Gauguin had little to no knowledge of its indigenous beliefs and customs. Further, he found no indigenous cultural artifacts during his first stay although he did late in his stay discover published sources for indigenous objects and practices that influenced his art by way of a Belgian scholar.33 In addition to Gauguin’s main artistic threat at “terrorizing reality” and creating ugly art as Fénéon and others strongly postulated, the challenge to Gauguin’s lack of direct observation of Tahitian subject matter or overall Tahitian expertise helped to dismiss his new art as “inauthentic.” Gauguin’s personal life was also fodder for criticism by his artistic enemies. For instance, that it was discovered that Gauguin procured his exotic mistress, Annah la Javanaise, only after his return to Paris stealing her from a French singer after meeting her possibly through art dealer Ambroise Vollard lent an almost boorish air to his art-world bearing. That after 1895 Annah la Javanaise became Alphonse Mucha’s mistress in the same building in which she ransacked Gauguin’s studio in August or September 1894, was a further curiosity.34
Perhaps to be expected from leading Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, each balked before Gauguin’s forty-one Tahitian canvases during his one-man show at Durand-Ruel’s in November 1893. Two days before the show closed Pissarro wrote to his cher Lucien: “I saw Gauguin; he told me his theories about art and assured me that the young would find salvation by replenishing themselves at remote and savage sources. I told him that this art did not belong to him, that he was a civilized man and hence it was his function to show us harmonious things. We parted, each unconvinced. Gauguin is certainly not without talent, but how difficult it is for him to find his own way! He is always poaching on someone’s ground; now he is stealing from the savages of Oceania.”35 Yet during that two-week show Gauguin received a complimentary review from Octave Mirbeau, his old champion, and a reported verbal endorsement from major Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. While some new paintings done by Gauguin in Paris are clear aesthetic hybrids of Europe and Polynesia―such as Portrait de Upaupa Schneklud and Aita Parari te Tamari Vahine Judith, both from 1894―Vaïraumati tei oa (Her Name is Vairaumati), a painting he started in Tahiti in 1892 based on his new-found knowledge of indigenous gods, received its mystery and savagery out of French Symbolism and this trend of inculcating his Tahitian iconography with contemporary if controversial European influences would significantly deepen in Paris.
The argument over whether Gauguin’s Tahitian oeuvre was either authentic, exploitative colonialism or the condition for an artistic sham continued during his Paris stay. After it was revealed that Gauguin was returning to Tahiti in spring 1895, the regular art critic for Mercure de France ridiculed his decision based on the artist’s published contention that his rendering of the unnatural and the ideal were his muses. “Why must he leave his Breton digs,” Camille Mauclair wrote, “and exile himself in Tahiti to execute his painting which could, as Gauguin himself said, be done without leaving his room?” Even the artist traveling to Tahiti could be viewed, under certain critical conditions, as inauthentic to Gauguin’s own Tahitian-inspired modern art.36
Lagging sales in Paris and in Copenhagen of Gauguin’s Tahitian art portfolio remained a sore point for the artist. Whatever the date or venue― Durand-Ruel’s from November 10-25, 1893; an auction of Père Tanguy’s art collection with six works by Gauguin on June 2, 1894; a sales-exhibition in his atelier of Gauguin’s woodcuts, monotypes, wood sculptures and Tahitian paintings from December 2-9, 1894; or a February 18, 1895 Drouot auction of 47 works of art – sales performance for the “greatest modern painter” consistently underwhelmed. Such headwinds pushed Gauguin to “face facts” in a changed manner. In December 1893 he had bragged to Mette about bidders at Durand-Ruel’s going as high as 1,500 francs on his asking price of 2,000 to 3,000 francs for a Tahitian canvas and he conceiving a potential fallback price of 1,000 francs for each of his paintings. A year later, hungry for cash and wanting to unload his 4-year-old stock, Gauguin offered the same dealer thirty-five Tahitian canvases for 600 francs each.37
What might have occurred for Gauguin if he had stayed in Paris instead of going back to Tahiti, while impossibly speculative, is hinted at by his choice of Swede August Strindberg to write his catalog introduction for the February 1895 Drouot auction. While Strindberg could be simply viewed as another national hybrid – that of the Nordic lands and France – by the mid 1890s there could be no more propitious moment for Gauguin to interact with this avant-garde literary figure. About Gauguin’s age, Strindberg had also broke with naturalism around 1890 and subsequently was in personal and artistic crisis as he sought new arts forms in an emerging Symbolism. For his proposed catalog introduction Strindberg recognized Gauguin to be a savage and what defined a savage, according to the playwright, novelist and poet, is that he created art work that is neither beautiful nor harmonious but original and unique.
In mid1890s Paris the city was in the midst of a technological revolution. It was in color lithography and that mechanical art form proliferated among artists like wildfire which a competitive Gauguin could not have failed to notice. His reaction to the popular modern modality was to remain undeterred in his pursuit of the low-tech woodcut. The savage, Strindberg wrote, is independent and uncompromising. In the rush to technology, Gauguin’s defiance – or what Mette called his “most monstrously brutal egoism” –contributed to the woodcut’s revival at this time. More important, in the graphic arts no contemporary French artist could approach Gauguin’s power and vitality.38 In the Paris period from 1893 to 1895 – and extending to 1900 – Gauguin had no dealer representation. Gauguin broke and then drifted away from the security of Impressionism that Degas, Monet, Renoir and Cassatt enjoyed.39 Strindberg, an artistic visionary, could bring little to Gauguin by way of collectors or patrons. Like Gauguin, he brought the integrity of his artistic experience which around that time was regrettably bordering on insanity. Three months before leaving France, Gauguin, resigned or relishing his social and artistic isolation, wrote to writer-artist Maurice Denis in March 1895. Gauguin wrote to congratulate the younger artist on an article he published on Armand Séguin, Gauguin’s print-making comrade in Brittany in summer 1894―and includes this short line on a modern artist’s role that might serve as Gauguin’s epitaph in France:
“What prompts me to write you is the pleasure it gives me to see painters looking after their own business….Go on all of you fighting with the brush as well as the pen, and in my retreat (in the South Seas) I shall cherish this fervent hope.”40
The Paris interlude for Gauguin was about reworking and reinterpreting his first Tahitian experience. Whether Breton coifs or Tahitian pareos, Gauguin uses them to express his themes of distant memory, savagery, mystery, darkness, androgyny, sensual melancholy, exoticism, and the hieratic. His art united disparate objects and themes but under a veil of mystery and ambiguity. As a craftsman he uses symbolical objects to express a deeper idea than the surface meaning of the artifacts that a viewer can identify. Along with his unsold canvases Gauguin filled his Paris studio with Tahitian fabrics, wooden sculptures, weapons, trophies, and photographs and then advertised for collectors to come and steep themselves in the new language of modern art.41 Through hard work and artistic vision in France involving Synthetism, Symbolism, and from 1893 to 1895, Tahitianism, Gauguin remained an avant-garde leader. Gauguin’s art divided critical opinion but ever the passionate individualist who possessed an optimistic expectation for himself he saw much of his ambition realized in Paris in those short months. His wife Mette was responsive to his interests and he received his share of critical praise and sales for his exhibitions. In his art Gauguin combined fact and fantasy, reality and imagination and used a variety of artistic media and innovative techniques.42 In Paris by way of his re-workings of his Tahitian experience Gauguin deepened his vision of the islands and served his appetite to be, as Gustave Flaubert might arrange, “violent and revolutionary” in his work. Between 1893 and 1895 Impressionist Paris is artistically lost in the background to Paul Gauguin: there is no more than one canvas of its snow-covered roofs out of a courtyard window that was painted by him. The importance of Tahiti in Gauguin’s psyche in this Paris interlude cannot be overstated – and it becomes increasingly evident after his return there which soon resulted in his second (and final) Polynesian sojourn.
*In 1890 one French Franc was the equivalent of about 20 U.S. cents. $1 today had about $20 of buying power in 1890. http://www.fisheaters.com/forums/index.php?topic=3458337.0