Gauguin at SeMA – Last Friday afternoon HJ and I went to the Seoul Museum of Art (aka SeMA) to see an exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s work. Tickets were 13,000 a person, which at first I thought was a bit steep, but it turned out to be worth it. The exhibition covered the second and third floors of the museum, beginning with some biographical information and photos of the artist and then moving into his Bretagne paintings, before he left for Tahiti in search of primitive purity. Gauguin is probably best known for his paintings of Tahiti (there were a good number of these as well), but it was interesting to see what he had painted while he lived in France, paintings such as The Yellow Christ (Le Christ jaune). The main attraction was his masterwork Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (D’où Venons Nous, Que Sommes Nous, Où Allons Nous), which occupied an entire wall of one room on the third floor. There were also some of his earlier paintings, before he moved on to Cloisonnism and Synthetism—these paintings were much more in the style of his teacher Pissarro, and when he started to strike out on his own in terms of style some of the paintings reminded me of Cézanne (one of my favorite artists, and an artist with which Gauguin on occasion painted). These paintings were all new to me, and I enjoyed them a lot. The very end of the exhibition contained other arts forms created by Gauguin, including woodcuts and sculptures.
I think what most impressed me about the exhibition, aside from the excellent paintings themselves, was how many different places they came from. You had paintings from the Met, from other museums around the States, from museums in Europe, from private collections around the world, etc. And they did not just get a few little paintings, hang them up, and call them an exhibition—they had some very well-known works, including of course Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. When we finally arrived at this painting, a tour group came in behind us with a docent from the museum. He said that the museum had negotiated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for three years to get the painting on loan. In an effort to explain the importance of this negotiation to the children in the group, he likened it to having secured the Mona Lisa on loan from the Louvre. The children were suitably awed, and I understand why he said that, but I thought that he managed to overstate and understate the matter at the same time. The Mona Lisa has been loaned twice since the Louvre first acquired it in the early nineteenth century (once to the United States in 1963, where it was displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and at the Met in New York, and once to Tokyo in 1974). And people come from around the world and line up to see La Gioconda. So I think he might have been reaching a bit with that comparison. At the same time, though, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and (here’s where I reveal myself as the cretin and art ignoramus that I am), to tell you the truth, it was all very underwhelming. For starters, you are pushed by the painting so quickly that you only have a moment to look at it. More importantly, though, I had already seen this painting a thousand times—it is so famous and so well-know that when I finally got a chance to see it in person, I just though, “Yep, that’s it alright.” And that was it. No angels sang, no light came down from heaven. I spent a lot more time in front of Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, studying the various details, so I can so unequivocally that it was a far more moving experience for me. In that way I thought the comparison fell a bit short.
I can’t discuss a museum exhibition without mentioning the translation, of course—but I promise not to discuss it for too long. I will simply say that the translation was sufficient, but it was not inspired. More specifically, it was grammatically immaculate, but it was far too literal and thus felt awkward. (There were certain information panels that, for some reason, were not translated.) There is a video tour you can rent for 3,000 won, and it comes in both Korean and English versions, but I cannot speak to the quality of the English version—HJ and I rented one of the Korean guides and split the earbuds one a piece. After all, why pay for two guides when you can share one? Not all of the paintings and exhibits have accompanying audio content, but a significant number do (I think there were about twenty-one or twenty-two items all told), and I thought it was worth the extra charge.
Before this exhibition, I didn’t really know all that much about Gauguin—I’ve never taken an art history class in my life, so all I really knew were the Tahiti and Polynesian paintings he had done in search of the primitive (that is, what Gauguin felt would be untainted by modern Western civilization). I was surprised to learn that Gauguin didn’t leave for Tahiti until he was about my age. And, although in retrospect I suppose it makes sense, I was also a little surprised to learn that he was a very unhappy, very disillusioned artist. His paintings of Tahiti always struck me as quite innocent, but I realize now that this is what Gauguin was looking for in his subjects. What he found, though, was that his idealized version of the primitive did not match reality.
After taking our time in the exhibition, we sat outside the museum in the late afternoon sun and talked about what we had seen. We had both been affected by the tragic story of Gauguin’s later years—how, for example, a terse letter from his wife informed him of the death of his beloved daughter, and after this he never spoke to any of his family again. HJ wondered why great artists never seem to be happy, and I mused that perhaps artistic genius and happiness are mutually exclusive. Not that I think it is impossible for artists in general to be happy, of course, but I do think it is very difficult for transcendent artists to find true happiness. Transcendent artists are driven individuals, never satisfied with what they have, always reaching for that ineffable ideal. Happiness, on the other hand, is really just another word for “contentedness,” so almost by definition the great artists rarely end up happy. Even if they do create something so transcendent that they could be said to have captured that ideal, what follows is often not contentedness but despair. Gauguin, for example, promised that he would commit suicide after he finished his masterwork. (He didn’t—and he never again reached the level he had achieved in his masterwork.)
I am not an artist and I never studied art, so it’s a little difficult for me to write about things like this, but the exhibition made a great impression on me. My mind is a jumble of thoughts and emotions that are hard to put into words—although that is probably due to circumstances beyond the exhibition. At any rate, if you are in Seoul and have any interest in art, I would definitely recommend checking out this exhibition; it will be there until 29 September. The exhibition is open until 9pm, and if you buy your ticket after 6pm you can save 2,000 won—three hours should be plenty of time to take in everything, I think. If you want a little more time to look around, Tuesdays of the first and third week of every month are “Museum Days,” and the museum stays open until ten o’clock. You may have to deal with bigger crowds, though.