Paul Gauguin, Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching), 1892 Credit: Tom Loonan

Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist,” a new survey of Paul Gauguin’s oeuvre at the Art Institute, aims to disrupt the familiar association of Tahitian motifs with his work: full-bodied, brown-skinned women, sandy beaches, lush landscapes, tranquil waters. This is a noble and necessary endeavor because Gauguin’s output consists of so much more than his well-known painting. Here a thorough collection of objects, didactic texts, and historical frames provides much-needed context to Gauguin’s place in the art-history canon. As someone who enjoys a good backstory, I was pleased to see Gauguin’s artwork contextualized with examples of arts and crafts from the cultures that inspired him. But as an art writer and critic who works to uncover meaning in various settings, I was disappointed. While offering the background that positions Gauguin as an artistic innovator, the exhibition skirts the context that raises ethical questions around his relationship to cultural consumption and appropriation.

Gauguin was an unusual figure for the second half of the 19th century. Not only was he a globe-trotter, having lived in far-flung places since childhood, but he was also a genre crosser. Painters hardly ever dabbled in sculpture as publicly as he did, and “Artist as Alchemist” highlights this by displaying more than 240 objects, including ceramics, wood carvings, prints, and decor alongside arts and crafts that influenced Gauguin’s creative output. An early example of Gauguin’s forays into sculpture is Gourd (1886-’87), a twisting vessel covered with a sea of protruding faces and animals. Working in the style of Peruvian ceramics he saw as a youth, Gauguin confines the mossy green glaze to certain areas—the faces—while painting others with white slip. Another aspect of his eclecticism was his exploration of nontraditional religious practices such as mysticism and the occult—upon discovering the Celtic community in Brittany, he began to incorporate some of their pagan motifs in his work.

The more I traversed the exhibit halls, encountering numerous examples of Gauguin’s appropriation, from images in Javanese reliefs to fiber arts from Martinique to the wood-block printing techniques of Japan, the more I felt uneasy. On a map outlining his world travels near the entrance, I noticed that all of his destinations outside of Europe were lands that had been colonized by Spain or France at some point: Peru, Panama, Martinique, the South Pacific. Gauguin traveled the world devouring the creativity of people whose land and cultures had been violated countless times before.

My approach to criticism is rooted in a belief that objects and experiences can be evaluated on their own terms, but that their social history—their backstory—uncovers their meaning. I ask questions about quality, execution, and impact so I can leave my personal preferences out. Criticism isn’t about sorting art into piles of “good” and “bad” work, but rather about sparking dialogue on the ability of an object to effectively convey meaning.

Gauguin’s sculptures are beautiful, and his paintings certainly benefit from these earlier experiments in form and material. Figures like the iconic washerwomen and Breton girls, rendered in the manner of Degas and Pissarro, were early indicators of Gauguin’s interest in abstraction, and his use of bold color swatches and mystic symbols anticipate the coming rise of modernism in art.

Yet while “Artist as Alchemist” acknowledges Gauguin as an artistic visionary, it only slightly concedes the controversial aspects of his pieces. It’s important to question this framing. Do Peruvian ceramic techniques or Japanese wood-block printing practices only become “radically experimental” when a Western European man incorporates them into his work? Are people from seemingly exotic places inherently less tainted by society and academic learning, making them better able to access the spiritual in art? There aren’t many paintings of Gauguin’s version of “happy darkies” on the islands, but his fantastical assumptions about the lives of people in faraway lands remain embedded in this collection of objects, giving “Artist as Alchemist” a discomfiting feel. Too often scholarly critique allows us to canonize artwork apart from the racist and imperialist subtext of the ideas and practices that undergird it. This exhibition makes a valiant effort to contextualize Gauguin and his body of work, but misses an important opportunity to offer a more in-depth analysis of the social history of the art it exhibits.  v