Woodcuts and Watercolors

In the scattered notes written for his daughter Aline, Gauguin said, "You will always find nourishment in the primitive arts, in the civilized arts I doubt that you will." This belief, which runs as a theme through the artist's thinking, is nowhere more evident than in his woodcuts. Under the inspiration of the traditional French folk woodcut (the images d'Epinal), and the Japanese woodcut (really a folk art itself), Gauguin in effect reversed the whole nineteenth-century tradition of wood-block prints to produce his own characteristically bold and broad effects. While the traditionally expert carver used lines, set as closely together as his medium would allow, to rival as best he could the modeling of the painter, Gauguin, always opposed to modeling, employed (as indeed he did in his painting) the large flat surface. His characteristic woodcut effects are of broad, contrasting areas which strike the eye, not by the expert cleanness of the cutting, but by the bold contrast of their essential design. Where these areas needed to be lightened for the double purpose of decorative pattern and intensification of the basic bold design, Gauguin scratched lines so fine and closely set that they seem to be etched into the surface rather than cut out in relief.

Consonant with the broadness of his method, Gauguin's characteristic color effect is dark, even black. (He is here very different from the Japanese print.) Black is his basic color, relieved usually by one, sometimes by two others -- a yellow, a deep red, a purple -- through which figures and design seem to emerge from the depths of shadow. This is a world of mystery, of half-perceived forms and gestures and expressions, a world whose binding element is a brooding atmosphere suggesting splendor and enigma.

The most important of Gauguin's woodcuts were done early in his career as an artist, in Brittany, after his first return from Tahiti. The best, and the rarest, of them were printed (probably by hand, without a press) by the artist himself. Later impressions (first by Louis Roy, and then after his death by Gauguin's son Pola) lose much of that combination of deliberate technical coarseness and intuitive sensitivity that is so typical of Gauguin. "It is just because [these] woodcuts return to the primitive period of woodcutting that [they are] interesting," wrote Gauguin to De Monfreid from Tahiti. With them, Gauguin produced a revolution in the graphic arts, and fathered their revival (particularly among the Expressionists) in the first years of this century.

Gauguin's watercolors are scattered throughout his life. Some were done in Brittany as finished works, a few (like the Yellow Christ) were sketches for works in oil, but these are rare, for Gauguin's inspiration functioned as he worked. Among the most interesting are those he did to illustrate his own writings: those he drew in his letters and those he inserted into his personal revision of the book he had written earlier with Charles Morice, Noa Noa.

No comments: