My Son Took Me to See Gauguin at the Seattle Art Museum

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Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière, 1888 or 1889. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

I’m pondering my great high school English professor’s thoughts on art, as I walk up the lobby of the Seattle Art Museum with my teenage son. My son John Luke and I were on our way to see Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, now exhibiting at the Seattle Art Museum.

Art education for kids has always been important to me. That’s why I’ve always loved to take my son to open space classrooms, commonly known as museums. I believe that it’s essential to show kids art of all kinds when they are growing up, and take them to museums and sculpture parks where they can see great artworks, such as the Gauguin retrospective we saw last weekend. While I like to pick his mind about what he thinks about “art” and this or that painting, he has his own quiet way of interacting with art. This time it happened to be that of one of my favorite painters, Paul Gauguin. But, back to ruminating about art and kids later.

Père Paillard, 1902. Painted miro wood. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

Brother Zutelis would look straight at us in English class and say solemnly that “art reconciles opposites,” as he strode magnificently about the room, clasping his hands together purposefully behind his back. The proof of this timelessness was before us as we stood admiring Gauguin’s fearless use of color in his landscapes of Southern France and Tahiti over a hundred years after his death in the Marquesas Islands in 1903. I think that Gauguin is such a captivating artist for many reasons, and because his style defies closeting into a category by art historians. He created symbolic images using folk art, Eastern imagery, primitivist visual tropes and Catholic symbols in his canvases. They call Gauguin’s style “post-Impressionist” because there is no facile label to describe his complex evolution across the media of painting, sculpture, wood working and illustration. He created his own brand of Impressionism in his earliest years. But his syncretic creative approach touched on many styles, and later influenced Symbolists, Synthetists, Cloisonnists, Cubists, Fauvists, and even the American Arts and Crafts movement. And, with Cézanne, he brushstroked towards the paradigm shift of modern art’s beginnings.

Arearea no Varua ino (Words of the Devil, or Reclining Tahitian Women), 1894. Oil on canvas, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Art is outside restrictions and dimensions of race, gender, politics and society. Of course, art can easily be (and has been in history) gendered, politicized and socialized by various individuals and social movements. But the manner in which children approach great art and architecture is with few preconceived ideas of what is aesthetically “ideal” and “prototypical.” And children seem to have the natural capacity to appreciate colors and forms in art, even in the earliest stages of development. Art has an affective guise that reaches through intellectual barriers and touches the emotional part of us.

Apatarao Landscape from Tahiti, 1848-1903. Image courtesy Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

And art is above all didactic. It has a way of presenting all of us with fresh shapes, uncommon color combinations and different images we have never seen before. These visual representations are absorbed and can help foster new perspectives on appreciating other art works, buildings, urban landscapes, even different ethical points of view. In fact, as my son and I were leaving the exhibit, we talked about these things together. He was obviously taken with the paintings and how unique Gauguin’s use of color and shapes was. How Gauguin focused on more detailed outlines and colors in the foreground figures and some other background figures were less detailed. That the palm trees were catching the wind — and the use of finer brush stoke combinations. He was also curious about the language of Easter Island, and the people of the Marquesas and Tahiti. This led into a discussion about why these Pacific Islands are so unique in their history and culture. And, of course, thinking about why Gauguin wanted to go there.

Manao Tupapau (Watched by the Spirits of the Dead), 1894. Lithograph, feather, pencil and wash. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Art has a way of encouraging your mind to make general observations about the interconnections of art, culture, history, language, politics and religion. And, it clearly challenges us to think more critically about the images we are bombarded with in our everyday lives. I’m confident my son has taken a few steps towards seeing the relationships of all these things. And I’m very happy John Luke took me to the Seattle Art Museum. I learned to see Gauguin’s colors with his fresh eyes, and Gauguin’s art through the eyes of a kid.

The Seattle Art Museum is the only venue in the United States for Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise. The show emphasizes the complex interactions and connections between the life and art works of Paul Gauguin and the rich culture of the South Polynesian islands. The exhibit opened February 9 and lasts until April 29, 2012, with nearly sixty of Gauguin’s paintings, sculptures and works on paper, displayed with sixty major examples of Polynesian sculpture. Check out the Seattle Art Museum site for general information on the museum and for details on the Gauguin exhibit.

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