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Gauguin comes to these islands

By CARLOMAR ARCANGEL DAOANA, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 27, 2022 5:00 am

More than a century after his death, the life and work of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) continues to be studied, scrutinized and debated.

That he contributed an immense shift to the development of modern art is both clear and incontrovertible. What remains to be a welter of speculative insight was the artist’s decision to settle in the French Polynesia, where he created arguably his best work, absorbing the landscape, the community and the customs that proved to be the transformative agent of his figuration.

Those who are familiar with Gauguin’s work — and even casual observers of art — will be delighted to know that they can see the master’s works in the flesh as part of the exhibition “Diamond in the Rough,” which opens to the public tomorrow, June 28, at the Pintô Art Museum. What the viewer will see is a suite of bronze sculptures based on Gauguin’s wood carvings, cast through the lost-wax method. Included in the show is a trio of sketches and prints that offer a granular look at Gauguin’s figurative process.

A complement to the bronze sculptures is a trio of drawings and prints, such as “Le Sourier” made from a woodcut impression on china paper.

The origin of these bronzes is Museum Pasifika, an art space that brings together “artworks from the Pacific area with those of South-East Asia.” Founded by the French art collector Philippe Augier, the museum is located in the idyllic Nusa Dua Complex south of Bali, Indonesia. Now temporarily housed in Gallery 7 of Pintô, this collection of Gauguins comprises what may be the most important art loan in recent memory, giving Filipinos access to the master’s vision and his adoption of vernacular forms that would ultimately influence the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Bearing the signature “PGo,” Gauguin’s phonetic initials, these sculptures present the protagonists in some of Tahitian mythologies, such as in “Hina Te Fatou,” which depicts the conversation between Hina, the Tahitian Goddess of the Moon, and Te Fatou, the God of the Earth. Other bronze works that bear a similar theme are “La Hina,” “Luxure,” and “La Culture Maori,” which is identified as “Cylindre au Christ” in other literature. While it is a self-portrait, a low-relief sculpture is inscribed with the word “OVIRI,” the goddess of mourning — an interesting addition to what would have been just a straightforward side profile of Gauguin.

A highlight of “Diamond in the Rough” is the bust of Tehura, considered Gauguin’s most iconic figure. Also known as Tehamana, Tehura is the main subject in some of the artist’s most famous paintings.

A definite highlight among these pieces is the bust of Tehura, considered to be Gauguin’s most iconic figure. Also known as Tehamana, Tehura is the main subject in some of the artist’s most famous paintings that include “Tehamana Has Many Parents,” “Woman of the Mango,” and “Spirit of the Dead.” In the sculpture, one can see the flower that she’s wearing on her right ear, referenced in Gauguin’s fictional autobiography, Noa Noa. Similar works of these bronze sculptures were exhibited in “Paul Gauguin: Artist of Myth and Dream” at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome, Italy, from Oct. 2007 to Feb. 2008.

The story on how these works reached the Philippines is fascinating. One day, a lady approached Dr. Joven Cuanang, the president of Pintô, and introduced herself as H.E. Michèle Boccoz, the French ambassador to the Philippines. “How wonderful this place is,” the ambassador told Dr. Cuanang. “Perhaps we should have a joint project.”

His figures look like Ilocanas. Naturally, having done most of his work in Polynesia, he would echo more or less the images coming from the Philippines.

Paul Gauguin, depicted in this low-relief sculpture, is considered one of the most enigmatic figures of modern art, known for living in French Polynesia and incorporating non-Western iconography in his works.

A week later, they sat in a meeting, this time with Marc Piton, counsellor for Cooperation and Cultural Affairs, and Martin Macalintal, attaché for Audiovisual of the Embassy, on how they would mark the 75th year of the Treaty of Amity between the Philippines and France. Dr. Cuanang mentioned that it would be fitting to have a work by a French artist included in the commemorative exhibition.

“It was very natural for me to think of Paul Gauguin, the reason being that I have always loved his works,” said Dr. Cuanang. “When I was in Boston, I decorated my apartment with prints of Paul Gauguin. His figures look like Ilocanas. Naturally, having done most of his work in Polynesia, he would echo more or less the images coming from the Philippines. It kind of relieved the homesickness that I had.”

One of Gauguin’s most popular works is “Hina Te Fatou,” which depicts the conversation between Hina, the Tahitian Goddess of the Moon, and Te Fatou, the God of the Earth.

Piton, who was aware of the collection of the bronze sculptures at Museum Pasifika, broached the idea of loaning it, which was a more workable arrangement than borrowing a work from a museum from far-off France. When the sculptures arrived, Dr. Cuanang immediately recognized the spark of primitivism that he so adored in the prints he had in Boston. “Tehura” is his favorite, as it resembles the characters that populate Gauguin’s works that Dr. Cuanang has known so well.

Tasked to come up with the curatorial direction of the exhibition was Sandra Palomar, who practiced in Paris for more than a decade before assuming the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila from 2012 to 2015. While significant, Palomar envisioned the Gauguin works not as the gravitational center of the show but the starting point in the continuum through which influences and inspirations circulated between the artists from the Philippines and France. Her guiding word is “ugnayan,” which connotes the contact points transpiring among artists as they inhabit — temporary or otherwise — another culture.

“Torse de Femme Tahitienne” bears the spark of primitivism, one of the most recognizable qualities in Gauguin’s works.

Palomar positioned Gauguin as the symbolic beginning of the show, the “rough” alluded to in the title, together with the iconography of émigré artist Henri Eteve and the sketches of Manuel Ocampo, among others. “What we have in Gauguin is the impulse on the carnality, the body… That’s where you find Gauguin: that place of the story where he is in front of… nature in its rawest,” Palomar explained.

What the exhibition also proposes with clarity is the underlying narrative of diplomacy between countries, between art institutions, between artists. “In layman’s terms, it is friendship,” said Palomar. “You have artists here who know each other. Henri Eteve knew Federico Alcuaz. You have Jean Paul Gaultier meeting Helena Carratala. Manuel Ocampo knows Stella Rojas.”

Also known as “Cylindre au Christ,” this bronze work reveals highly symbolic carvings that serve as visual shorthand for the rich Tahitian culture.

For Dr. Cuanang, art is a powerful conduit through which diplomacy may be enacted. “The diplomatic relations of countries should really involve the exchange of culture in order for us to be able to understand the similarities and the differences of people and that should be able to unite us in one world,” he said. “Diamond in the Rough” offers a view where such an exchange marvelously takes place.

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“Diamond in the Rough” is on view until Aug. 7 and included in regular admission. Pinto Art Museum is located at 1 Sierra Madre Street, Grand Heights Subdivision, Antipolo City. For inquiries, contact Jenny Villanueva at 0927-764-6270 or [email protected]