Two hundred and thirty two

Noa Noa woodcut number 1

1894-95 by Paul Gauguin
Tate Modern until 16 January 2010; permanently at the British Museum

The wonderful thing about the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern is the breadth of work it displays from the artist. Gauguin’s painting is so characteristic, it is easy to pigeonhole in terms of style and recognisability. But the Tate shows us a vast collection of work; of early and tender portraits Gauguin painted of his children, to beautifully crafted wooden sculpture created for his house. The effect is one that turns our perspective of this renowned and certainly notorious artist on its head, one that alters our vision and provides the depths for a portrait of a slightly more rounded and intriguing character. Gauguin’s travel journal Noa Noa is particularly poignant in this respect; showing us not only his obvious infatuation for Tahitian women, but also his inquest to understand and document the traditions, beliefs and lifestyle of this land and its people. Noa Noa literally translates as ‘fragrant fragrant’ and though this points to the overt sexuality Gauguin clearly took from Tahiti, it also has a clear grounding in place – of place and longing and smell being the first indication of arrival. The style of the book’s accompanying woodcuts confirms this leaning towards a documentation of place as a whole. Style is more primitive than that of his lusciously painted women, with figures as shadowy outlines in simple and modest dress. Colour is dark and easily so, with the strong yet thin lines of the woodcut providing enough subtle but poignant contrast. These lines appear almost as articulative highlights – bright orange in the dark density of the earth. It is in these lines that animals surround the first figure’s feet; emotive they appear to materialise from the earth itself, held in the lines of the earth’s texture that stretch beyond. A coconut tree at the height of this land then grows to another Tahitian scene; again grounding Tahiti’s people and their ways in the earth that they stand on. The colour that is used is distinctly warm and natural – soft red and orange, together with the darkly intense yellow of the setting sun. The design accumulates to the words Noa Noa, written it seems in a cloud above the scene. The growth of this climax — from earth to scene to words — is celebrated in fronds of foliage curling round the words and by a creature who rests impossibly in the sky beside it. The image reads like the mist of perfume itself, a rising cloud of scent, aiming to be the vision of the very fragrance of place.

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