photos courtesy of Seattle Art Museum
Stevenson, one of three famous, late-19thcentury European dropouts, wrote of his self-exile in the South Seas: "But I was now escaped out of the shadow of the Roman Empire…."
Stevenson died in Samoa in 1894. He’d sailed into warmer waters to sweeten his sickly bones, but he’d also had it with Western civilization.
French poet Arthur Rimbaud flipped Europe the bird and vanished into the Horn of Africa, where he toiled as a trader and gun runner for more than a decade. He died in Marseille, France, in 1891.
Paul Gauguin lasted until 1903, just more than a decade shy of 1914, when the Europe he fled committed suicide.
Gauguin answered to the same urges as his two fellow escapees, but the low-hanging fruit of prepubescent girls also attracted him, however much that fact is airbrushed in the biographies.
Paradise, for such a difficult man, remained elusive.
The Seattle Art Museum’s "Gauguin & Polynesia" An Elusive Paradise," gives us some 60 pieces of the artist’s Oceanic output — brilliantly colored paintings, sculptures and works on paper — juxtaposed with the same number of sculptured figures from Polynesian culture.
Critics and biographers will forever discuss Gauguin’s post-Impressionism, his influence on future generations of artists, his run-in with Vincent Van Gogh and his Dionysian drive for life and art.
In all its radiant and tactile beauty, the SAM exhibit reveals a man dreaming his life and art in what already was a Westerndefi led paradise. Gauguin was 100 years too late.
Despite his surly, even savage image, the former stockbroker was a sensitive man and a fascinating letter writer whose observations of Oceania, its myths and stories and people, are captured in his journal of Tahiti, “Noa Noa.”
One of the great strengths of the SAM exhibit is it does justice to Polynesian culture, casting Gauguin’s dream into sharper relief. As he wrote before setting sail from Europe: "I have come to an unalterable decision: to go and live forever in Polynesia. Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thoughts of tomorrow and this eternal struggle against idiots."
Everyman’s dream, but Gauguin took the plunge. The results, beautiful and poignant, are downtown through April 29.
"Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise," at the Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave. Information: www.SeattleArtMuseum.org