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Louis Paul Gauguin wrestled with what he regarded as the limitations of easel painting. Even as he painted canvases with the Paris art market in mind, he simultaneously explored the expressive potential of many mediums, including printmaking, ceramics, drawing, and wood carving.
His experiments in printmaking, begun ininclude work in etching, zincography, lithography, and monotype, but his most sustained engagement came with woodblock prints. Gauguin valued prints as a vehicle to distribute his art to what he believed would be a growing circle of collectors, critics, and fellow artists.
Exemplifying this aspiration is Te Atua, one of a series of fourteen woodcuts he made in Tahiti between and These are generally referred to as the Vollard Gauguin essay, as he sent some thirty sets of them to Ambroise Vollard in in hopes that the entrepreneurial art dealer would promote them in Paris.
Gauguin printed Te Atua in black ink on a sheet of japan paper, a tissue-thin paper used in European printmaking since the time of Rembrandt, which was later laid down on a heavier page of watercolor paper.
Whereas Gauguin had chosen a heavy commercial paper for his Volpini Gauguin essay of zincographs in3 he selected for the Vollard series a fine-art paper, one that he would have had to import to Tahiti from France.
The vertical stacking of motifs, capped by a framing arch, and the central position of its bold inscription suggest that this may be the title image in the series. The imagery is a rich fusion of Christian, Polynesian, Buddhist, and indeterminate referents, indicating the global span of his religious interests.
The scene is Gauguin essay in a friezelike shallow space under the expansive framing arch, inscribed with small cross or star forms that create the illusion of a vault of the heavens. The arch frames a decidedly non-French figure, however—a monumental head that in its facial features may be read, albeit ambiguously, as Polynesian.
But part of the power of this print is that clear identifications of its imagery are elusive, and the large head, highlighted by flowing white hair and a sober countenance, may also be read as a godhead that declares its authority simply through its iconic profile, monumental scale, and dominant position over the scene that plays out below.
The scene is bordered at the left by a woman and infant whose halos clearly identify them as the Madonna and Christ Child. The woman bows her head slightly toward the center ground, which is occupied by a figure as grotesque as Mary is graceful.
Offering symmetrical balance to Mary, a female figure at far right holds up her hand in a gesture of reverence, or at least in acknowledgment of the extraordinary encounter before her.
Gauguin has adapted this pose of veneration from depictions of Buddhist figures in a frieze from the Borobudur temple, Java, known to him via a photograph.
Such thinking was not derived from anthropological or historical research on his part but rather from a kind of poetic affiliation that he forged between southeastern Asia, as a region whose art, he felt, bore witness to a heightened spirituality, and his current preoccupation with the religious heritage of Tahiti.
A varied animal world further populates the scene and enticingly raises the possibility of animals serving as sacred symbols. A peacock, almost equal in scale to the human figures, strides across the top of the image; the snake writhes in a small pond or field at the bottom.
At the lower left corner a small dog or fox curls in a cartouche-like space that suggests a nest or den, and at the right corner a bird resembling a goose assumes a balancing position. Rather, they are derived from religious and classical traditions.
Where Do We Come From? Where Are We Going? He also mused in the essay over where and how the soul begins, discarding the idea of any barrier that separates animal and human souls. Consonant with his interest in doctrines of theosophy, to which he had at that time been exposed for a decade, Gauguin refused to grant one traditional religious system—especially Catholicism, from his own background—primacy over others.
Rather, he set symbols and personages from different world faiths in visual dialogue in an orchid-laden, Edenic landscape that is peacefully inhabited by a diverse cast of gods.
Gauguin was reading, and even copying into his essay, passages from the theosophical writings of the popular English spiritualist Gerald Massey. Following such thinking, Gauguin found it appropriate to combine Christian, Polynesian, and Buddhist forms in this scene, as the gods of these religions were for him equivalent.
Some of the other prints in the series can be read as following a Christian narrative, if we read them in terms of paradise, temptation, the fall, a flight from Eden, and redemption by Christ through the crucifixion. The cards could then be reordered at will to create a new scene.
Similarly, individual prints in the series could be reshuffled by the artist or the viewer to suggest new narratives and to capture fresh spiritual insights with each new sequence. Endnotes I am grateful to Ellen Birch for her help with some of the research for this essay.
Prestel, K54 also bears the word Tahiti inscribed vertically in the image. In that image he depicts four gods, all of whom are based on sculptures he completed in Tahiti.
See Bezzola and Prelinger, Paul Gauguin, Traditionally Oviri was a female spirit of the forest connected with death. Gauguin adapted the idea to embody concepts of strangeness or savagery. But the relationship of that figure to the prostrate figure at the center of this print is speculative and is not supported by any strong visual resemblance.
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