Gauguin’s Woodcuts

By: Richard S. Field

Originally Published in 1969

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Like many artists before and after him, Paul Gauguin used the medium of the print to re­capitulate and initiate ideas and images. The first lithographs (1889) and the first woodcuts (1894) both summarized the creative years which preceded and carried stylistic trends fur­ther. In the first series of ten woodcuts, which may be called the Noa Noa Suite after the manu­script they were to illustrate, Gauguin compressed much of his mythological constructions of the Tahitian past—images of his first voyage to Oceania, 1891-93. At the same time he found a medium which could not only unite the optical and abstract qualities of his paintings but also straddle the esthetics of painting and sculpture. Gauguin was passionately concerned with the creation of objects by hand—the shaping or carv­ing of clay and wood—in which the more primi­tive or historically fundamental styles would again assert themselves. By contrast, painting was the expression of a civilized and conven­tionalized culture; Gauguin felt compelled to try to bridge the gulf that had come to separate the two ideals—and, internally, to unite the savage and the sensitive aspects of his own soul. The woodcut provided an opportunity to do this in terms of coalescing broad, decorative forms with subtle, coloristic optical description. It also allowed for the creation of a dark image which would evoke the mysterious night world Gauguin associated with Tahiti, and, by extension, with his own subconscious. And, finally, the woodcut enhanced the suggestive and symbolic qualities of the images, for, as compared with painting, it did not demand complete, narrative compositions. The later woodcuts, in fact, display considerable fantasy elements.

The woodcuts fall into five groups. First and most important is the Noa Noa Suite of early 1894; these offer the greatest synthesis of style and imagery and are also the most complex compositions. There survive no more than a dozen impressions by Gauguin himself from any of the ten blocks; one often encounters instead the later editions by Louis Roy (with added color blocks) or Gauguin’s son, Pola, whose pain­staking experiments enabled him to capture every nuance of cutting and scraping. The next group is quite varied and probably dates from the sum­mer and fall of 1894; of these nine, very few are represented by more than a half-dozen impres­sions. Most are experimental and two (Guerin numbers 36 and 42) are to be thought of as im­pressions from low reliefs. Illustrated are two of Gauguin’s archetypal figures, Hina and Oviri (G. 44 and 48).

In 1895 Gauguin returned to the South Seas. The winter of 1895-96 witnessed a tenta­tive return to woodcutting; a small group of five (mostly known in two or three impressions each) includes the little double image of a woman gath­ering fruit and the savage monster, Oviri, repro­duced here.

The dating of the next group of fifteen major woodcuts is problematical. Certainly they were all executed by the end of 1899, but whether they represent a continuous effort commenced before the suicide attempt of late 1897 is impos­sible to say. These works are cruder than the Noa Noa Suite, reflecting the nature of the woods and tools available, as well as parelleling the tendency to simplify the subjects and figures in the paintings. A work such as Soyez Amoureuses (G. 58) is no longer a scene but a collection of personal symbols arranged in a decorative fashion within a curvilinear, simply textured frame. There is a simplicity which Gauguin likened to the earli­est (around Durer) woodcuts he knew, and there are similarities with contemporary European decoration which need not be labored. The last batch of cuts, about fifteen, seems to fade into pure decoration, repeating single figures previ­ously used and occasionally offering satirical themes appropriate to Gauguin’s journal, Le Sourire, which they illustrated in 1899 and early 1900.


NAVE NAVE FENUA (Land of Sensuous Pleasure) Woodcut, 1894. G. 27 Edition of 1921
(Arrival at Nandana)
Stone relief from the Temple of Borobudur, Java. 12th century. Photograph from N. J. Krom, Beschrijving van Barabudur, The Hague, 1920. The source for many images, including the Eve of 1890 and the woodcut, Nave Nave Fenua of 1894. The style of the Borobudur reliefs fitted perfectly Gauguin’s quest for a simpler figure type. The heavy, imperfectly articulated, earthy limbs of the Javanese personnages, arranged with a slow grace and ordered with a deliberate and archaic rhythm, influenced even some of the Breton paintings. In Tahiti it was as if Gauguin’s personal style found an objective correlation with the Tahitian physique itself.

Woodcut, 1898-99. G-57
Doorjamb sculpture from the church
at Guimiliau, Brittany.
17th or 18th century.
Gauguin and his friends were fascinated by the crude but expressive, weathered Calvaries scat­tered throughout Brittany. Although these and other indigenous arts do not appear often in Gauguin’s painting or sculpture (a parallel to the same small influence exerted by primitive arts when Gauguin was in the South Seas), this Eve is quite surely the source for the more “European” of the Eves he created while in Tahiti.

PAPE MOE (Mysterious Water) Monotype and Watercolor, ca. 1894
It is indicative of the archaic character of the monotype, oil painting, and wood relief which this photograph inspired, that they were formerly considered as being derived from some Egyptian source. Recent research (mostly by Danielsson, Gray, and Field) has shown how often Gauguin turned to contemporary photographs, how he was friendly with several photographers, and how many internal relationships are shared by old photographs and Gauguin’s compositions.

Cite This Article

Field, Richard S.. "Gauguin’s Woodcuts." Expedition Magazine 11, no. 4 (July, 1969): -. Accessed April 17, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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