The artist's perspective of French Polynesia comes to life through his art and Selby's plant displays in 'Gauguin: Voyage to Paradise.'
Paul Gauguin and most who are drawn to Sarasota have one significant commonality: They’re in search of paradise.
The main difference, however, being that most who seek a refuge of sunshine and sugar-white sand in the city aren’t in self-imposed exile.
Visitors to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens can now gain a unique understanding of the French painter, his work inspired by Polynesian travels and the types of plants he would have encountered there in “Gauguin: Voyage to Paradise.”
Gauguin was born in 1848 Paris but spent four years of his childhood in Lima, Peru, on his maternal uncle’s estate, where his eyes were first opened to the world outside Europe. His worldview expanded even further between the ages of 17 and 23, when he sailed around the globe as a merchant marine — only to take a drastic pivot and become a stockbroker shortly after his mother died.
He got the job from businessman Gustave Arosa, who had received legal guardianship of the family after Gauguin’s mother’s death (his father died several years prior en route to Lima). It was also from Arosa that Gauguin gained an interest in art, enjoying the businessman’s collection of work by painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-François Millet.
Gauguin began to assemble his own art collection featuring work by the likes of Édouard Manet and Paul Cézanne, and eventually studied the arts of painting and drawing from painter Camille Pissarro.
He took to impressionism and started painting with the very artists whose work he had been collecting. Soon after, his social circle expanded to include avant-garde artists like Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Now is a good time to point out that Gauguin’s search for “paradise” began long before he eventually sailed to Tahiti in 1891, says Curator At-Large Carol Ockman. In the summer of 1886, he traveled to Pont-Aven in the Brittany region of France in search of a more simple lifestyle and direct expressionism in his art. Being away from the metropolis of Paris and its accompanying urban ills such as industrialization brought him joy and put him in the kind of mindset he wanted to be in to create art.
But after a few years traveling back and forth between Paris and Brittany (and after a turbulent period painting with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, France), he got the itch to leave France entirely. He had enjoyed an impactful trip to the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and was seeking a similarly tropical location to relocate to.
Ockman says Gauguin pitched a voyage to Tahiti to the French government and the French Ministry of Education ended up paying his passage in exchange for an agreement that he would document what he saw.
Gauguin then attempted to immerse himself in the Tahitian culture, painting the people and landscapes he found most authentic and least affected by French colonialism.
In 1893, he returned to France, confident he would finally have good luck selling his art. But his solo exhibit and book “Noa Noa,” detailing his observations of Tahiti and illustrated with his own woodcuts, were unsuccessful, so he went back two years later, eventually moving to the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he died in 1903.
It’s not that hard to turn a botanical garden like Selby into a tropical paradise.
President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki says that’s just one of several reasons why Gauguin was the perfect artist to highlight.
“The sort of paradise he evoked in his artwork really resonated with the paradise we have here at Selby Gardens,” she says.
From a fire pit made of flame-colored bromeliads in the conservatory to torches and Tiki statues scattered about the grounds, the additions made to the gardens for the exhibit fit in naturally with the tropical plants already on display year-round (including, Rominiecki says, palms, coconut trees, banana trees, etc.)
“What’s so interesting is how his artwork changed as he went to the islands and how the vibrancy of his color palette really changed,” she says. “We felt that we could evoke that in the gardens with living plants and flowers and with the trees we have.”
The point of the exhibit is to highlight the vital role of botanicals in achieving the artist’s interpretation of paradise. To do this, there is not just a lush display in the conservatory, but special touches as far as the edge of the property along Sarasota Bay, where patrons will find a lean-to with coconuts scattered about on a small patch of beach as well as an area made to look mountainous, seeing as the flat topography of Florida is one thing this local paradise doesn’t have in common with Polynesia.
Rominiecki says the exhibit is perfect for Selby because Payne Mansion has been displaying artwork connected to nature and botanical imagery since 1979, just not on the scale of major world-renowned artists in an interdisciplinary way. The past three years, the Selby team has been connecting gardens to famed art because of Sarasota’s cultural appreciation for the arts, and she says the result has been so positive, “the sky is the limit on the future of this program.”
“We’re looking at artists through a new lens,” she says. “And that’s their connection to nature. There are so many artists who can be studied in this context in a botanical garden, and it’s a fresh concept that hasn’t been done before.”
Guests will also find photographs showcasing Tahiti during the time of Gauguin’s travels, historic maps and visual materials that help visitors understand the world through the artist’s eyes.
Gauguin is more widely known for his paintings, so to offer Selby visitors something different, Ockman and the Selby team decided to feature works on paper. It’s extremely hard to secure loans of Gauguin works, she admits (saying obtaining paintings is essentially “out of the question”), so the process was made simpler and more unique, especially for people who have already seen several of his paintings.
Inside Selby’s Payne Mansion, guests will find 10 works from three different print cycles of Gauguin’s artistic career in a variety of forms — lithography, etching, woodcut, woodcut mixed with engraving, etc. — that help show why he was a maverick of printmaking techniques, Ockman says.
“We don’t know half the time what he’s actually depicting,” Ockman says. “The whole notion of modernism is about forms arranged on a two-dimensional surface, which is clearly part of what he was interested in.”
He mostly depicted women in nature, she adds, which is one example of what he liked to call the “primal” nature of his work, but it’s also important to note that he also liked to combine western subjects from the Bible and mythology. One example is a print in the exhibit that seemingly depicts a Tahitian Eve being threatened by a huge flying lizard native to Tahiti.
“He was interested not in refinement but in simple, direct expression,” Ockman says of his style.