- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

MADRID — The genius of flamboyant French artist Paul Gauguin drew the crowds to Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum Tuesday with the opening of a new exhibit showcasing 186 of his works.

A total of 65 museums worldwide and some 40 private collectors have lent works to the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Fundacion Caja Madrid to highlight the oeuvre of the painter, who died racked with alcoholism and syphilis on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands 100 years ago.

At the heart of the Thyssen-Bornemisza exhibit, titled “Gauguin and Symbolism,” is the painter’s “Vision After the Sermon,” painted by the artist in 1888 and on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Thyssen’s chief collector, Tomas Llorens, dubbed the collection “the most ambitious of its kind to date … the passing from impressionism to the 20th century avant-garde.”

A steady flow of art lovers spent elongated lunch hours sating their artistic curiosity. Their reward was a rare opportunity to gaze upon a huge body of work under one roof, including “Life and Death” (on loan from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo), until the exhibit closes Jan. 9.

The Thyssen exhibit, presented in six “chapters,” covers the period from 1884 to 1891, before Gauguin sailed for Tahiti, and also details his relationship with other contemporary artists of his day, such as Cezanne, Degas and van Gogh.

The Fundacion Caja Madrid exhibit covers three further chapters, showing Gauguin’s influence on the Pont Aven school in Brittany — as he led a break with impressionism, espousing a symbolic treatment of abstract ideas.

Exhibit commissioner Guillermo Solana, speaking before the gallery’s opening, praised Gauguin as having effected a “transformation of modern painting [and] cast aside four centuries of European art.”

Born in Paris in 1848, Gauguin, whose works are on show here alongside those of other major figures, including van Gogh and Cezanne, spent his childhood in the Peruvian capital, Lima.

After a stint in the merchant navy and a career as a stockbroker, he embraced painting in his late 20s, inspired by Camille Pissarro.

“Poetry begins where mystery is born,” he wrote to a friend in 1884, shortly after a financial crash caused the loss of his day job.

In 1887, having left his Danish wife and their children to return to France, Gauguin set sail for Panama and Martinique to sate his constant desire for inspiration.

Calling modern civilization a “disease,” he chose to live a simple life and dabbled in primitivism, which became known as postimpressionism.

The Martinique period figures heavily in the Thyssen exhibit with “Comings and Goings,” showing a simple village scene, and “River Under the Trees,” on loan from the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.

“Inlet of Saint Pierre,” painted in 1887, is another Martinique work, depicting a peaceful shoreline view of the charming so-called Little Paris of the Antilles.

Fifteen years after Gauguin immortalized the view, Mount Pelee erupted, killing up to 30,000 people and destroying the town.

Brisk sales of his work in 1891 enabled Gauguin to set sail for Tahiti, having three years earlier shared a house at Arles in southern France with van Gogh, who mutilated his left ear during that period.

In Tahiti, Gauguin enjoyed a renewed period of productivity for two years, during which he wrote his autobiographical novel, “Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal.”

He then briefly returned to France to exhibit but headed for the South Seas once more in 1895, already suffering from ill health.

Two years later, he attempted suicide but survived. He died in 1903 at age 54 on Hiva Oa — a premature end to a brilliant but often tortured existence.

However, as Gauguin put it, life was a passing moment, “an infinitely small amount of time to fulfill our desires, our dreams, our passions.”

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