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Issue 23. Time and Photography / La Photographie et le temps

The Monstrous and the Grotesque: Gauguin’s Ceramic Sculpture

Author: Yeon Shim Chung (Shim Chung)
Published: November 2008

Abstract (E): This paper posits the grotesque as an important aesthetic concept in analyzing Gauguin’s ceramic sculpture from 1888 to 1891, as well as in looking at Oviri, which he created after his Tahitian sojourn in 1893.  Understanding the subject matter, in particular in my analysis of Gauguin’s self-portraits, requires a thorough comparison of his ceramics and sculpture as well as his paintings.  The formal analysis of Oviri involves the social and cultural contexts surrounding the concept of androgyny in the fin de siècle and the way in which this idea played a role in Gauguin’s artistic credo.  By constructing his symbolic alter-ego, the seductive Oviri, as a destructive yet creative figure, Gauguin revises the image of the stereotypical femme fatale. 

The purpose here is not to examine the historical development of the term “grotesque.”  Rather, the focus is on how Gauguin’s grotesque images as depicted in his ceramics and wooden sculptures as well as in his portraits produced a new type of representation in a cultural context in which Darwinism and racial theories emerged.

Abstract (F): Cet article aborde le grotesque comme un concept esthétique essentiel de la sculpture et de la céramique de Gauguin entre 1888 et 1891 et d’Oviri, qui vit le jour après le séjour de l’artiste en Tahiti en 1893. Pour comprendre le choix des sujets traités, en particulier des autoportratis, il importe de faire une comparaison détaillée médias dans lesquels s’exprimait Gauguin : sculpture, céramique, peinture. L’analyse d’Oviri demande qu’on s’intéresse aussi aux aspects sociaux et cultures de l’androgynie en la fin de siècle et au rôle joué par ce concept dans le credo artistique de Gauguin. En construisant son double symbolique, la figure séductrice mais aussi mi-destructrice mi-créatrice d’Oviri, Gauguin réinterprère le cliché de la femme fatale.

Le but de cet article n’est pas d’analyser le développement historique du grotesque. On cherche au contraire à montrer comment les images grotesques de Gauguin, tant dans ses sculptures de bois que dans ses pièces en céramique, produisaient un nouveau type de représentation à une époque caractérisée par l’émergence du darwinisme et d’une série de théories raciales.

keywords: Gauguin, Ceramics, Sculpture, Grotesque, Oviri.

To cite this article:

Shim Chung, Y, The Monstrous and the Grotesque: Gauguin’s Ceramic Sculpture. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 23 (2008).



Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), after the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, executed a group of ceramic works that the engraver Félix Bracquemond thought rather strange and savage. Bracquemond was to play a role both in the development of Gauguin’s ceramics and in his search for new expression in this medium by introducing the artist to the ceramist Ernest Chaplet. Gauguin’s ceramic sculptures, which were exhibited over the years at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, Hôtel Drouot, the Salon of the Société in Paris, and Les XX in Brussels, however, were disparaged by critics and largely ignored by contemporary collectors despite the growing market for ceramic decorative arts.
It is important to examine why Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture were largely ignored by his contemporaries, and why insufficient understanding of the material remains to this day despite recent attention to his ceramics and sculpture in museum exhibitions.
The relative neglect of Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture was paralleled in Gauguin scholarship, which before the catalogues raisonnés by Christopher Gray in 1963 and Merete Bodelsen in 1964 was seldom undertaken in a rigorous manner.  Although scholars such as Richard Brettell, Françoise Cachin, and Douglas Druick have long noted the absence of scholarship on Gauguin’s ceramics and wooden sculpture, few critical studies were produced.  In view of the historical neglect of Gauguin’s ceramics and wooden sculpture, this paper examines primary sources, including many of Gauguin’s works themselves, in a cultural and historical context, in order to reevaluate the significance of his contribution to these media.  Critical reviews of Gauguin’s sculpture at Les XX underscore the inability of the public at that time to comprehend his fetish-like objects that, to the “civilized” patrons of the French and Belgian salons, resembled “curiosity pieces” from Africa and Polynesia.  By explicating Belgian materials to which I have gained access, I would like to shed new light on Gauguin’s original contribution to modern sculpture.
Despite Gray’s outstanding research, his catalogue raisonné is outdated.  Since its publication, not only have other Gauguin objects been discovered, but some pieces of furniture and sculpture that Gray considered to be works by Gauguin have been re-examined and are no longer attributed to the artist.  Some objects that Bodelsen and Gray could not account for or did not even know about turned up in auction houses in the late 1990s; examples include Atahualpa, now in a private collection, and the Faun, housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was accused for being a forgery (Vogel).
Due to the absence of dates inscribed on the surface of Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture, Bodelsen and Gray attempted to ascertain the chronology of these works by grouping them according to stylistic similarities.  They also wanted to compare these pieces with those in other media such as painting, drawing, and prints, which can be dated.  Clearly, without the groundwork of Bodelsen and Gray in the 1960s, Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture would not have attracted as much scholarly attention as they have in the years that followed.
Until recently, most scholars have focused on Gauguin’s paintings, drawings, and writings.  By studying Gauguin in the context of symbolism at the turn of the century, scholars such as Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutyński and Ziva Amishai-Maisel have attempted to investigate the hidden symbolism of each object in his work, his personal narrative, and his quest for paradise in both Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.  Robert Goldwater examined the decorative synthesis of line and color in Gauguin’s works in relation to the international dissemination of symbolism in the 1890s.
With the emergence of post-colonial studies in art history and other disciplines, scholars such as Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Peter Brooks, and Stephen Eisenman have examined Gauguin’s work in a new light.  These three scholars have turned Gauguin scholarship into a new arena of polemical discussion. In addition to these aforementioned scholars, Carole Andréani , Haruko Hirota and Laurence Madeline, a curator at the Musée Rodin have recently fueled the need to look at, more specifically, Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture from a more inclusive perspective than that prompted by Gray and Bodelsen some forty years ago.
Scientific and technological devices have allowed scholars to place most of Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture chronologically, although some dates are still disputed. Also, scholars have made errors in provenance due to complicated problems of logistics.  Aware of these difficulties, I have eliminated from consideration the posthumous bronze editions of Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture.  These pieces do not reflect the intention of the artist, who had always been most discriminating about the texture of the clay and the wood, and their materiality. 
Due to this complicated status of Gauguin’s ceramics and sculpture, one might find in this paper a certain disequilibrium between, on the one hand, the empirical basis of my research, with its emphasis on provenance and sources, and on the other hand the interpretative framework to which my work is also committed.  Instead of regarding these as opposite approaches, however, I prefer to treat them as complementary, uniting the empirical and interpretive approaches at the point where they come together, namely in the individual works of art.
This paper considers Gauguin’s grotesque ceramic sculptures, produced between 1888 (before his departure for Tahiti in April 1891) and 1895 (after his return to Paris in 1893).  First, in examining these works, I discuss the particularities of the artist’s techniques and inspiration in his idiosyncratic search of modernity between the boundaries of craft/ceramics and sculpture.  Second, I further explore the reception by his contemporaries as well as how Gauguin’s use of ceramic itself was considered “grotesque” in his artistic milieu.  The paper assesses his accomplishment in representing a “new man,” brought to life by the artist’s use of the grotesque, the savage, and the primitive, themes which all served as subversive strategies of resistance against the dominant aesthetics and cultural norms of his day (Creed, 44-70; Gauguin, 1894, 51; Kristeva, 4).  Finally the Oviri, 1894–95, is examined and established as the culmination of Gauguin’s interest in the grotesque in the 1890s.  In this work, by the very equation of ceramic itself with a debased and abject subject, Gauguin found a new way to express the grotesque.



1. Techniques and Inspiration: Symbolism in the Use of Clay and Firing

On April 10, 1887, Gauguin left Saint-Nazaire for Panama with Charles Laval, a fellow artist.  Soon afterward, in Paris, Albert Dauprat purchased some of Gauguin’s pottery at Chaplet’s factory (Merlhès, no. 131). Ill with dysentery and malaria, Gauguin had returned to France only to find himself financially devastated (Malingue, 123). He was staying with Emile Schuffenecker, who soon introduced him to Daniel de Monfreid.  In an undated letter to Mette Gad, probably around this time, Gauguin wrote: “Last Sunday, someone from Goupil was very enthusiastic about my paintings and finally purchased three paintings for Fr 900, and promised (he says) to take other works of mine” (Bodelsen 1964, 63; Rewald, 24). The person who paid the visit was probably Theo van Gogh for the purpose of organizing a group exhibition of Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, and Armand Guillaumin.  In December 1887, Theo chose four of Gauguin’s paintings and five of his ceramics on consignment for Boussod & Valadon.  Félix Fénéon remarked in his review of January 15, 1888:

What dishonored, inauspicious and harsh stoneware, he [Gauguin] gave life to: haggard faces with widely spaced large eyes, or with small eyes set adjacent to the snub-nose―two vases.  The third vase: old royal head, some Atahualpa whom one ousted, the mouth torn to pieces in an abyss.  Two other works of an abnormal and deformed [gobine] geometry.


While condemning the quality of the Brittany and Martinique paintings as barbaric and atrabilious (barbare et atrabilaire) characters and calling Gauguin the bird artist (grièche artiste), Fénéon nonetheless had more positive feelings for the ceramic sculptures (Fénéon, 90-91; Merlhès, 175; Guérin, 136).  One piece, Atahualpa (of which both Christopher Gray and Merete Bodelsen were unaware in the 1960s), represents the last Inca ruler, the legendary Atahualpa, whom the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro had murdered in 1532 (Gray, 24; Merlhès, 479; Druick and Zegers, 87).  The ceramic technique that Gauguin used was far from those of traditional French decorative arts.  In a letter to Mette, dated December 26, 1886, Gauguin claimed, “I have created ceramic sculpture. Schuffenecker says that they are probably too artistic to be sold.  In the meantime, he asserts that when this idea is given to an industrial art exhibition, it will have outrageous success.  I wish Satan could hear that! (Malingue, 97-98).” The exhibition that Gauguin refers to is the eighth exhibition of l’Union des Arts decoratives, from August 13 through December 4, 1887. None of Gauguin’s works had been exhibited.

Defining his work as ceramic sculpture, Gauguin embraced the idea of producing a body of work that would be both “functional” and salable such as vases and jardinières, and also “aesthetically sculptural,” which would satisfy his own desire as an artist.  Indeed, he had already anticipated the possibility of failure in attempting to sell artistic ceramic sculpture.  Gauguin was not interested in the forms and shapes traditionally used by French ceramists.  He, in fact, rejected decorative surfaces completely, preferring rough and coarse surfaces created by primitive coiling and hollowing-out techniques.

While Gauguin considered his paintings to be essentially decorative in defiance of currently dominant figurative practices, he approached ceramic sculpture quite differently.  He regarded his ceramics and ceramic sculpture primarily as symbolic in origin and “grotesque,” a medium in which he felt free to develop the more primitive and exotic aspects than he had in his paintings.  Significantly, his first ceramic sculpture was done in the winter of 1886–87 in Paris right after his first trip to Pont-Aven. By identifying with so-called primitive people, particularly in Brittany at this time, Gauguin responded to Breton earthenware jars and sabots with passion and, inspired by them, first attempted to challenge contemporary Western ceramic techniques, materials, surface treatment, color, and formal preferences.     

Of course, there is no doubt that the Arosas played a significant role in many aspects of the young artist’s life, and through the collections of Gauguin’s mother as well as those of his guardian, Arosa, Gauguin became familiar in particular with Peruvian pottery (Braun, 36-54). Ancient Peruvian art, with its disproportionate forms and transformation of figures into vessels, stimulated Gauguin’s unconventional use of form in his ceramic sculpture.

The criticJoris-Karl Huysmans had similarly unconventional ideas about the modernity of sculpture which he expressed in his essay “L’Étiage” in Croquis parisiens (Huysmans, 137-140). After Gauguin’s participation in the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition at rue des Pyramides in 1880, Huysmans noted his debut as well as his presence in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. The critic, disappointed by sculptures at the Salon, found modernity instead in the headless, armless store mannequins with their colored nipples at the rue Legendre in the Batignolles area.  These at first reminded him of mutilated corpses that one might see in a morgue.  But soon the horror disappeared.  Huysmans referred to these couturiers’ dummies in terms of what he might see in a waxwork cabinet, “ce musée Curtius de seins” (Curtius Museum of Bosoms).   As expressed in his critique for the Salon, this is the very charm one found in the streets of Paris: the artificial, the ugly, and the particular, as in Désire Ringel d’Illzach’s inelegant, mannequin-like sculpture Splendeur et misère.  Huysmans claimed that the beauty of the antique statues at the Louvre was based on “froide matière (Ward-Jackson, 803-4).” The same attitude informed Gauguin’s defense of new materials and color, which resulted in his ceramic sculpture.

In an article published in Le Soir, dated April 24, 1895, Gauguin recalled his collaboration with Chaplet and clarified his objectives (Gauguin 1895, 1): “to transform the eternal Greek vase (which today has been complicated by Japonisme and Christophle-style goldsmiths), to replace the potter at his wheel by intelligent hands which can vividly impart feeling to a face on a vase and yet remain true to the character of the material used, obeying the laws of deformed geometry.” Interestingly, “géométrie gobine” (deformed geometry) was the term, as noted earlier, used by Fénéon in his review of the Gauguin exhibition of January 1888 at Boussod & Valadon.  Further, in this article in Le Soir, Gauguin wrote of Albert Aurier’s compliment that he had molded “plus d’âme que d’argile (more soul than clay) (Aurier, 300).” Gauguin praised Chaplet’s role in opening the door to artists for ceramic production and at the same time he expressed some criticism:

[T]he modern sculptor’s nimble fingers too often aggravated the potter’s work by adding ornaments.  Nudes, cherubs, garlands, and still more miniature women, as if they were being made of stone, bronze or pewter.  Really, one could have hoped for something better, and because it lacked individuality, the production of French artists suffered by comparison with the Chinese glazes, which were mere child’s play for Chaplet.

Other potters, such as Jean Carriès, Félix Auguste Delaherche, and Adrien-Pierre Dalpayrat, produced original high-fired stoneware successfully, Gauguin argued,  although Sèvres “imitated and vulgarized,” imperfectly creating, merely adding more and more kilns.  Gauguin tended to categorize artists as either “revolutionaries” or “plagiarists (Gauguin 1895, 1).” In conclusion, he urged M. Roujon, director of the Beaux-Arts, to recruit talented artists for a better art industry (Tardieu, 2).

Gauguin, challenging earlier ceramic production and decoration in which the colors were applied in the first firing and then more color was added in the second firing, did his own work using another method.  Like some other innovative ceramists, he first applied a colorless glaze and then combined various oxides.  It was through the firing and the degree of temperature that the desired color was obtained.  The firing emerged as the primary technical element.  As Sizeranne put it, “The potter sets up, but the fire disposes.  It is the potter who moulds but it is the fire that confers color.  The potter can only relegate the pigment to fire, and then give it air or allow it to suffocate.  He stops at the moment when he believes that the most beautiful tone has been realized (169).” This idea corresponds to Chaplet’s having said, “Do not fear to hand over to fire.  Only fire will give us a solid compact material, deep color, and a satisfying finish (Sizeranne, 170; Pitts, 26-33; Clark, 63-70).” An inherent material characteristic of stoneware that fascinated French ceramists such as Chaplet and his contemporaries including Delaherche, Dalpayrat and Carriès as well as Art Nouveau artists, was the fact that it could sustain the intense heat of le grand feu (the high-fire kiln).

The spirit of these innovative ceramists also resonates in other contemporary writings and documented experiments.  For instance, in an article in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1876, Charles Blanc pointed to the relationship between form and decoration as the essential component in ceramics.  He went on to criticize French ceramists for their adherence to the principles of painting, which they merely transferred from that medium to their own.  He also examined various issues of form, nature, and color, providing good examples of Chinese and Japanese works.  He argued that Western naturalism derived its form from nature alone, while Eastern naturalism incorporated the “imagination,” not hesitating to make use of fantastic animals and flowers.  Also, the manner in which Far Eastern ceramists chose color differed from the Western tradition; two complementary colors could be juxtaposed, or the same color used with differing degrees of intensity.  Blanc criticized the French tradition of coloring that found harmony in a combination of pale hues or used two dominant tints with few transitions to create an impression of opulence.

Blanc’s criticism summarized the concerns shared by a number of French ceramists and educators.  The immediate problem, however, was to develop a technique of firing that would result in the desired coloring.  This problem was taken up in several other texts as well.  For instance, Salvétat published Leçon de céramique and Traité des arts céramiques de Brongniart, in 1857 and 1877 respectively. Gauguin had read the Traité and in his notebook jotted down the formulas and recipes for black stoneware (grès noire), along with thirteen designs from the handbook (Gray, 27; Bodelsen 1964, 35).

In order to explain his own subjectivity in terms of his monstruosités, which were his disguised form of modernity, Gauguin wrote, in 1889, about the imaginative creatures in Redon’s work, published after his death in Jean Loize, “Un inédit de Gauguin,” Les Nouvelles Littéraires (May 7, 1953):

I do not see why it is said that Odilon Redon paints monsters. They are imaginary beings. He is a dreamer, an imaginative spirit. Ugliness: a burning issue; it is the touchstone of modern art and of its criticism.  If we look carefully at Redon’s profound art, we find little trace of “monster” in it―no more than in the statues of Notre-Dame.  Of course animals that we are not used to seeing look like monsters, but that is because we tend to recognize as true and normal only what is customary, what constitutes the majority (Guérin, 41). [emphasis added]

Through this statement, Gauguin revealed that he was attempting to search for an infinite imaginative power.  Influenced by the idea of monstruosités, Gauguin further proposed an alternate concept of modernity and criticized institutionalized academic practice and firms such as Sèvres.  He concluded that his concept of modernity was derived from new uses of the imagination.  In a previously unpublished manuscript that appeared July 8, 1949 in Arts, a concept of decorative arts based on the imagination was articulated by Gauguin (Guérin, 26-7).

For Gauguin, the unfinished appearance of a work was itself decorative, along with finger marks and a deliberately unfinished look which was anathema to most sculptors.  Dalou, for instance, made the following statement, characteristic of conventional contemporary belief, in his notebook after having destroyed a number of sketches, drawings, and even complete works:


I have always thought that a public exposition was for the public and that we must have a finished work; our studies are for ourselves and interest only ourselves (Hunisak, 77).


Unlike Dalou, Gauguin’s early Impressionist “sketchy” painting corresponded to his own position in favor of the unfinished look in ceramics.  Gauguin’s discussion on clay and firing is a clear example of his own ideas about production:

Let’s take a little piece of clay.  In its plain, raw state, there’s nothing very interesting about it, but put it in a kiln, and like a cooked lobster it changes color.  A little firing transforms it but not much.  Not until a very high temperature is reached does the metal it contains become molten . . . The quality of a piece of pottery lies in the firing.  A connoisseur would say: this is badly fired or well fired (Guérin, 30–31).


For Gauguin, clay was not a simple, ordinary material that he accidentally happened to choose.  Rather, he saw clay as culturally specific; it could provide him with the means of reviving, for example, the primitive and exotic world that he had just experienced in Brittany.  Secondly, without a specific theoretical framework Gauguin alludes to his association of clay, craft, and the grotesque in his practice with subject matter that he, and others, considered debased. 



II. The Reception by Gauguin’s Contemporaries


The characteristics of Gauguin’s ceramic sculptures, and the rapid rate of their production, before Atahualpa, were apparent by the end of December 1886 or January 1887.  In a letter to Bracquemond, he wrote playfully: “If you are curious to see all the small products of my extreme madness coming out of a kiln―55 pieces in good condition―you will scream loudly in the presence of my monstrosities but I am convinced that these things will fascinate you (van Dovski, no.3).” This letter suggests that Gauguin had already completed 55 pieces by January 1887.  The bizarre, playful, unbalanced, creative, and unconventional shapes of the pieces are monstruosités, that is, small results of his great madness, as he himself expressed it (Merlhès, 143).

There is no existing correspondence between Gauguin and Bracquemond to show how the latter felt about the young artist’s ceramic monstruosités.  It seems, however, that Bracquemond did not appreciate Gauguin’s work, as implied in Pissarro’s letter to his own son, Lucien, dated January 23, 1887:  “Bracquemond told me that there were some forms that Gauguin made, which were good, and others that were nothing.  On the whole it seemed, he told me, that they were the art of a sailor, taking a little bit from everywhere… (Pissarro, 131).” Chaplet was not particularly interested in the former sailor’s efforts either, preferring stylish and conservative shapes with slip and rich glaze.

The ceramic sculpture that Gauguin produced was mostly unglazed stoneware in a basic vase shape, except for several excellent glazed pieces representing painterly subjects that he had drawn in Pont-Aven and Martinique.  These convey feelings that are spontaneous, raw, playful, rustic, and honest to the clay materials.  The glaze, of course, was imperfect, which resulted in accidental “marks,” of chance effects or uneven texture or bubbles.  The artist even deliberately emphasized the flaws and irregular glaze distribution that most contemporary ceramists looked down on and abandoned.  The shapes are rectangular, cylindrical, irregular, or deformed with sculptural ornaments or handles, highlighted by gold tints.  Some of course have not survived, due to inappropriate firing or mishandling. 

The cloisonné technique, which was used to control the running of the glaze in Gauguin’s Vase Decorated with Breton Scenes (G45) at the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels (Bodelsen 1959), is the one most often appearing in other contemporary works such as the brown stoneware Cylindrical Vase by intimist (déco intimiste) Ringel d’Illzach at the Atelier Haviland (rue Blomet) around 1884 (Huysmans, L’Art moderne, 212). Gauguin might also have seen cloisonné vases by Hexamer and Édouard Dammouse at Chaplet’s studio on rue Blomet.  The technique used for the Brussels vase is comparable to that of the potter Théodore Deck, who had developed what he called émaux cloisonnés (cloisonné enamelwork).  Deck, after numerous experiments ending in technical failure, continued Salvétat’s study and succeeded in realizing the perfect glaze.  His sang de bœuf appeared at the 1884 Exposition de l’Union Centrale and, later in 1887, in his book La Faïence.  Deck, an important ceramist, contributed to the discovery of new colors and glazes, not inspired by the traditional French faïence but by Persian and Rhodian faïence (Kreutzberger, 79-82).

The effort to create an art form that was innovative and far removed from the prevalent academic practice was not only Gauguin’s goal but also that of Jean-Paul Aubé (1833–1916), whom the Haviland brothers had hired as décorateur de vases at the Auteuil atelier in 1876 (Hirota 2002). Aubé and Gauguin obviously shared common interests in stoneware and the primitive rough materials discovered by Chaplet.  The potters demolished the mechanical forms so that the surface remained harmonious with the inherent characteristics of the clay.  Spatial treatment varied according to the desire and taste of the potters. 

Later, the so-called “Art Nouveau” potters were doing sculptural work that might bear comparison to Gauguin’s; though their interest in technique was obviously greater than Gauguin’s, they too were interested in the exotic.  In a way, Gauguin stood alone at least at first in finding both the grotesque and primitive qualities in craft ceramics. He also anticipated the cultural and aesthetic implications of the coarse and unvarnished surfaces and irregular forms that he employed in his ceramic sculpture. The intentional use of clay in distorted shapes with primary coiling and hollowing-out techniques, as well as the rough and polychromed surfaces in his low-reliefs in the 1890s, all culturally specific, characterized Gauguin’s pursuit of the vernacular and primitive as part of his creative accomplishment under the conditions of modernity.   

Gauguin’s ceramics and sculptures were ignored by collectors.  Not surprisingly his works were neglected in Les XX exhibition in Brussels as well (Alhadeff 1972, Ch. IV). He showed two wood reliefs, the Soyez mystérieuses (G87) and the Soyez amoureuses; three ceramic works; and his enameled statue Black Eve (G91), in the first showroom alongside fifteen works by Vincent van Gogh (Maus, 116).  Earlier, Gauguin had written a letter to Octave Maus in late 1890 to say that out of six pieces for the show, Soyez amoureuses was Fr 2000; Soyez mystérieuses Fr 2000; and Enameled Statue Fr 1000. In a letter to Maus, dated January 9, 1891, Emile Schuffenecker promised to ship the three ceramic vases he owed (Brettell ,183). Schuffenecker paid careful attention to “the small head of a child with (ribbon) that has two chipped pieces” that would be the vase bust Portrait of Jeanne Schuffenecker (G62).  Another jar in the form of a grotesque head (G66, fig. 1) is definitely one of the two vases, listed as no. 4, in the catalogue.  The third vase shipped to Les XX was difficult to identify, yet it might have been the vase in the form of the head of Mme Schuffenecker (G67). 



Fig.  1
Gauguin, Paul (1848-1903)
Portrait of the artist in the form of a grotesque head (G66). Winter 1889.  Enamelled ceramic. 28 x 23 cm.
OA 9050. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski.
Location : Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
Photo Credit : Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
Image Reference : ART184078

Gauguin’s participation at Les XX received harsh criticism in most Belgian art circles and newspapers.  Only the critic A.J. Wauters praised him:

In addition, the creator demonstrates in the Enameled Pretty Nude Girl that he is not insensitive to the feminine form.  If he wants to, he is as capable of making whatever he wishes as well as anyone.   On the whole, the exhibition is an immense and disgusting production of banality, of foolishness, of bland applauding and vaunting repetition. The present time makes for great consumption.  However, Gauguin’s art provokes an honest expression of violent art.  Because the work is violent, can we say that it is not made by an artist?…  Not at all, because among most of the present exhibited works I don’t hesitate to say that I prefer the enameled statuette of the woman with harmonious and rare integrity, which M. Gauguin exhibits in the first gallery of Les XX (Wauters).

Gauguin’s naïve and primitive forms, in particular, were under assault (Anon. 1891).   His two reliefs, which were “going above and beyond the limits of senselessness” received the most ruthless reviews (Champal). Among them, La Chronique coined the term le Gauguinisme in its February 23 issue to help understand Gauguin’s art:

So, M. Gauguin, the sculptor invited by Les XX [sic] to exhibit his work at the last Salon, which was the great attraction, has a reason to return to the primitive, to make ignorant art, the impotent art, and laborious naïveté.  It stems from the hatred for the vulgar banality of statues.  Le Gauguinisme grafted upon le Vingtisme, and here’s the great principle.  Rail against the artists who have the necessary knowledge to represent a man more or less as he is!  Oh, what great art, le Gauguinisme is, which shows us repulsive beings, hardly human, whose dislocated divinities or the crass efforts of the artists hardly get away from the caves of ancient times (Anonymous, “Le Vingtisme).” [emphasis added]

Critics defined Gauguin, the creator of the mutilated Eve with an arm missing and the monstrous ceramic portrait, as a clown, a farceur who “sculpted by using deep gouges and polychromed wood low-reliefs which look like old Flemish sign-posts, save for the subjects (Champal).” Gauguin was criticized for having been “hypnotized by the monstrous and degrading obscenity,” with “incurable and grotesque ignorance (Baes).”
The public, in particular condemned Gauguin’s art and believed his vividly expressed ideas reflected his degenerate condition.  The primitive aspects of the reliefs, Soyez amoureuses and Soyez mystérieuses at the Les XX exhibition of 1891 were targeted by critics.  Gustave Lagye noted “the annoying Hindustani, Tibetan, Javanese, and medieval resurrections,” in a “so-called symbolic nightmare (Lagye 1891).”  
As Albert Alhadeff  examined, at the same exhibition, the Belgian sculptor Georges Minne was under attack for the style of “l’école d’Égine (Aegina) (Lagye)”: the word “primitif” extensively used in critical writings about the exhibition meant “vulgar and bad taste” which summed up the general critical response to Gauguin’s work.  The critical remarks on primitive sculpture are best addressed in the following review, originally intended for Minne’s La mère pleurant son enfant mort:

M. Minne, the sculptor, competes with the savages of central Africa and the less civilized islands of Oceania.  One has compared their works with the mummies, the incomplete works of Egyptian art.  Excuse me!  In the name of the great artists of the ancient dynasty, it is fine to protest.
There is no common ground between the embryos in plaster, the droll foetus of M. Minne and the sculptural expression of the Pharaohs.  One thousand correlations are established between the fetishes of savage tribes and human masks created clumsily in the formless and hideous body.  M. Minne has been rather pleased with himself in transporting African practices to us (Verdavainne; Alhadeff 1972, 46-7).

The primitive was scorned because Gauguin’s sculpture reminded Belgians of “the fetishes of savage tribes” and repulsively made human masks, “aux corps informes et hideux.”  The formless and hideous body, it was asserted, is not only the result of bad taste but also of the inability to represent ideal beauty, as shown by how a rough, crude surface was combined with amorphous and awkward forms.
Defending the newcomers who had a propensity toward the primitive at Les XX, Verhaeren in the Nation understood their sculpture and was an advocate of their work.  Against the barrage of harsh criticism, he claimed that they represented the return to the original, archaic source, the art of savages and children:

So―whatever the value of the sculptures would be, isn’t it significant to recognize the creators of stone and wooden sculpture by, respectively, MM. Minne and Gauguin?  Although the two are very much dissimilar, they both evidence the return to the influence of primitive art.  They realize their dreams; one using images excavated in the Far East, and the other imbuing images with very emotional and painful aspects of the mystical middle ages in his stone sculpture.  Our contemporary art is weary of itself, and in order to be renewed it should return to original sources and to childhood.  Contemporary art wants to be grafted to its origins, at the same place where the stem came out of the soil, to no longer remain on one of the numerous branches grown too large, which have produced everything that their sap could give.  In sculpture, as in painting, the revolution is profound, radical, and violent (Verhaeren).

In the same vein, A.J.W. defended Gauguin’s polychrome relief:

[He shows] a very vivid tendency toward the primitive, not the primitive as in the origins of Christian art, whose rough and lifeless sculptures decorate the sarcophagus extracted from catacombs, but in the search for workers of the most distant times of Indian or Aztec antiquity…  The return is evidently an irrational thing, an irritating anachronism, because he is intentionally challenging the tastes and expressions of the time.  He can only explain it as a protest against innumerable plain, banal, and empty productions which fill the official expositions and easily receive admiration and banknotes from the public….  In spite of the repulsive and uncouth appearance of his work, the artist is capable of expressing a feeling of art by the single presence of some stiff posture or the unique creation of some violent expression thanks to an enamel [statue] or harmonious polychrome wood relief (A.J.W.).

The aesthetic appeal of the primitive for Verhaeren clearly corresponded to the notion of Champfleury’s L’Histoire de l’Imagerie Populaire, published in 1886, which urged artists to abandon conventional academic representation and take up rudimentary, embryonic primitive art:

I think that an idol carved in a wood trunk by a savage is much closer to Moses by Michelangelo than a large number of statues in annual Salons. 
With the savage and the genius both, what we observe are audacity and ruptures of all the rules . . . ; but one must penetrate deeply into embryos and leave behind the skill and competency of so many craftsmen who call themselves artists (Champfleury (James Fleury), xi–xii).

As Alhadeff noted, “primitive” was used not only for crude art forms expressing a return to the origin or source, but at the same time “minus habens,” literally meaning “a figure with less” in Latin was expressed by Maurice Maeterlink whose study on Giotto was published in 1891. According to Maeterlink, the new modern primitive artists Gauguin and Minne, much like early Italian primitive artists such as Giotto and Cimabue, possessed untainted thoughts like children (Malingue, 201).
The primitive bodies of the hideous and informe and “minus habens” resulted from evolutionary ethnographic sources (both pre-Columbian and Oceanic).  Gauguin assembled these even before his first Tahitian sojourn, and they were critical elements with which Gauguin “transgress(es) the neat boundaries of the art world with its categories based on form (Krauss, 65)” and color, thus creating an anti-idealistic body of work (Chung, Chap. 3).  The critic Georges Verdavainne was right to disparage an informe body in light of the disturbing aspects of the primitive sculptures. 
A few decades later, in his “Dictionary Entry” in Documents, Bataille noted that informe declassified and challenged the “mathematical frockcoats” that philosophy assigned (Bataille).  In addition, the unique use of decomposed form and the rough texture of surface set Gauguin at odds with other contemporary symbolist artists such as Khnopff and Pélâdan.  Their worship of occult ideals, Schopenhauerian idealism and their belief in the primacy of symbolic art were dominant (Chassé, 251-2).
At the time of the exhibition of Les XX, Gauguin, who had finally decided to depart for Tahiti, auctioned his work at Hôtel Drouot on February 23, 1891.  His financial crisis, however, was not altogether relieved by the “relative success” of the sale (Daniel de Monfreid, 1; Jirat-Wasiutyński, 362). 



III. Oviri and the Grotesque as a Performative Site for a New identity

Several authors have paid attention to the grotesque in Gauguin’s works, for example Hirota, Taylor, and Childs.  Whereas previous studies of the Oviri, such as those by Landy and Gray, discussed Gauguin’s non-western sources (both Peruvian and Oceanic) as the assimilation of a non-Western canon, I believe that Gauguin’s Oviri is equally related to the Western canon by mean of the grotesque in both form and content. Gauguin’s use of the grotesque belongs to part of a long tradition dating back to the sixteenth century, which thereafter at times also exhibited the combination of the decorative and the exotic in the grotesque. Working in this tradition of the grotesque in the decorative arts, Gauguin brought in the concept of craft in his ceramic sculpture. I argue that the characteristics of the grotesque that Bakhtin discusses of course do appear in Gauguin’s work, but as a literary figure he was apparently unaware of the long established connection between the decorative and the grotesque in which Gauguin’s craft operates.
My use of the term grotesque in relation to Gauguin’s work is closely related to the general perception of the decorative or craft and the exotic at the end of the nineteenth century in France when these terms were considered pejorative (Thompson 13; Wright xxvii; Storr, 211-216).  The discovery of Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) in the fifteenth century had given rise to the term “grotesque” from a new critical perspective, as documented by Nicole Dacos in La Découverte de la Domus Aurea et la formation des grotesques à la Renaissance.  The wall decorations, ornaments, and architectural elements depicting eccentric combinations of natural motifs, figures, and animals began to be described as “grotteschi” (F.D. Klingender) 
The grotesque motifs found at the excavation of Nero’s grotto quickly influenced Renaissance painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in Europe, the grotesque was widely used as a general term for ornamental motifs in paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts.  John Ruskin’s “Grotesque Renaissance,” in The Stones of Venice (1851-3), and Jules Adeline’s Les Sculptures grotesques et symboliques, with its preface by Champfleury, demonstrate the use of the grotesque in both sculpture and decorative arts in a subjective sense.
The term grotesque came to characterize ornamental decorations and motifs that seemed eccentric, remote, unfamiliar, or hybrid; the term exotic conveyed a similar idea at this time.  It was usually connected with isolated theoretical settings, although it was also associated with the past.  From the beginning, the exotic and the grotesque both referred to representations distant in time and space.
Gauguin used the decorative and the grotesque in his craft of ceramic sculpture in order to suggest characteristics that he considered superior, positive, and open.  He was not the first to embrace this point of view.  A bit earlier, Baudelaire in “De l’Essence du rire” had discussed the grotesque and connected human laughter to the Fall, or to physical and moral debasement.  Baudelaire called the laughter caused by the grotesque, distinct from joy, “the absolute comic” or “the comic in the guise of the marvelous,” as opposed to the ordinary comic (Baudelaire, 241-263; Swain, 11-25; Hirota 1991, 53-54). The Satanic laughter that he claimed to be found in the primitive and savage world represents the man’s superiority, essentially, as a creative force. 
Gauguin’s use of a heterogeneous mixture of animals and human figures is one of the main characteristics of the grotesque in his ceramics and sculpture.  The monstrous motifs are thoroughly combined with Gauguin’s conceptual use of the exotic and the decorative.  These three terms are all applicable, I find, to Gauguin’s ceramic sculpture. Here any discussion of the grotesque as a fixed term is not possible, since each period has emphasized a different aspect of the term.  In Gauguin’s case, the integration of the grotesque with the “craft” medium of his ceramic sculpture conveys ambivalence, distortion of nature, absurdity, incongruity, and freedom, a point made by Geoffrey Galt Harpham in On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature.  While, as noted in Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature, the term was frequently used for questioning the problematic nature of life and existence. Gauguin’s first-hand application of the grotesque in his craft produces the ambivalence, radicalism, and contradiction, more so than in his paintings.
Let’s look at the grotesque shape of the Oviri (1893–94 according to Danielsson, and 1894–95 according to Brettell), and its cavity, which is unmistakably sexual (G113, figs. 2-3): the back of Oviri’s head suggests a vaginal orifice, partially revealing the interior.  



Fig. 2
Gauguin, Paul (1848-1903)
Oviri. 1894. Stoneware statuette (G113). 75 x 19 x 27 cm.
OAO 1114. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski.
Location : Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
Photo Credit : Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
Image Reference : ART184077



Fig. 3
Gauguin, Paul (1848-1903)
Oviri. 1894. Sculpted gray ceramic (G113).

0.750 x 0.190 x 0.270 m. 
OAO1114. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski.
Location : Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
Photo Credit : Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
Image Reference : ART367818


The meaning of the opening at the back of the head of the Oviri is rarely mentioned in the literature, with the exception of a discussion by Sue Taylor in an article.  According to Claire Frèches-Thory, Ambroise Vollard thought of the “monstrous standing woman,” the Oviri, as a flower vase  because Gauguin’s self-portrait jar was used as a vase in Still Life with Japanese Woodcut of 1889 (Brettell, 372).  However, the backs of a number of Gauguin’s earlier sculptures also have astonishing figures. The portrait-vase at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is likewise intriguing (G49), as its top and orifice resemble female genitalia.  Another piece, Marchand d’esclaves (Fantastic Vase) (G69) of 1889 reveals a confusion of back and front, representing the humorous male face with a hooked nose that contrasts with an elegant Degas-like bather. Thus, the Oviri aperture was a calculated decision not merely accidental.

The grotesque operates on the front and back side of the Oviri to engender a new identity. As Philip Thomson noted in The Grotesque, the term “grotesque” is etymologically related to grotto.  In Italian, both the adjective grottesco and the noun la grottesca are derived from the word grotta, denoting a cave (Thomson, 13, 17).  Additionally, in regard to the significance of openings in the body, Mary Russo points out that the term “grotesque,” with its vestigial connotations of a deep, dark place, “grotto-esque,” lends itself to being equated with female anatomy (1-16); in this case in the crafted form.  From the image of a dark, wet, hidden cave, comes the appearance of a new body, the grotesque female body.  As Bakhtin noted, the grotesque body “is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, and created, and builds and creates another body (Bakhtin 317; Kim, 64-75).”  Not only such a performative process but also the function of the grotesque in the realm of “craft” take place within the savage female body Oviri through the metaphorical use of its cavity in the back.  Here, the new body designates the birth of an androgynous séraphîtus séraphîta in the context of Symbolist literature and the birth of a new man, a savage, combining the two.
This becomes clearer in the drawing of Oviri in the monthly satirical journal Le Sourire, which first appeared on August 21, 1899.  The drawing includes the following inscription: “The monster, strangling its creation, fertiliz[es] with its semen a generous womb to engender séraphîtus séraphîta.”  The phrase is tightly bound up with the Swedenborgian novel Séraphîta by Honoré de Balzac about the life and death of an impeccable, angelic being, an androgyne.  In fact, in 1895, Gauguin sent Mallarmé two copies of his Oviri woodcut, mounted on the same support with the dedication “To Stéphane Mallarmé, this strange figure and cruel enigma.”  Gauguin was also acquainted with several other writers, for example, Paul Verlaine, and Joris Karl Huysmans, the latter having created an androgynous figure in his 1884 novel, À Rebours.  Thus, Gauguin’s interest in androgyny was not so obscure, since androgyny was already a theme in Symbolist literature in both France and Belgium. 

As a matter of fact, before Gauguin left for Tahiti he had already portrayed an androgyne as the ideal in his letter of October 1888 to Madeleine Bernard: “If you would find happiness solely in your independence and your conscience. . . , you must regard yourself as androgynous, sexless” (Cachin, 176).  Through an androgyne, a third sex, Gauguin saw himself as liminal between civilized and uncivilized, man and woman, good and evil, divine and savage, as Eisenman noted in his book, Gauguin’s Skirt (115). Gauguin melds such dichotomies through androgyny.  In this respect, Gauguin created Oviri as the heir of the Romantic-Symbolist tradition of the femme fatale as well as an androgyne at the fin de siècle. This was made possible by the performative nature of the grotesque.
I see the Oviri as both a self-portrait of a savage “new man” and, more broadly, as the statement of Gauguin’s mature artistic credo. Analyses of Oviri have often referred to, as context, Gauguin’s adversity upon his return to Paris from Tahiti.  The narrative usually begins with November 1893, when Gauguin held an exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Galleries to show his new work, including the carved sculptures that he had brought back from Tahiti.  His hope of establishing his fame upon his return to Paris failed and was further shattered by a series of disasters (F. Cachin, 94). Gauguin left for Le Pouldu, in Brittany, in early May 1894, with 13-year-old Annah, a Javanese, and her pet monkey.  Her presence with the monkey incited a fight between Gauguin and fishermen at Concarneau, with the result that Gauguin suffered a serious bone fracture.  This misfortune was followed by a verdict against him in a lawsuit on November 14, 1894, concerning the paintings he had left with Marie Henry in 1890.  This judgment deprived him of the right to reclaim this major collection of his paintings and ceramic sculptures.  To make the situation more wretched, on November 18, 1895, his auction at the Hôtel Drouot was deemed a failure; and the submission of Oviri to the spring Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts not only resulted in a rejection but also raised a stormy protest (Danielsson, 170).

Against the backdrop of these events, Gauguin sculpted Oviri as a threatening female figure as Jirat-Wasiutyński noted. He may have been hoping for a remission of his venereal disease, most likely syphilis; but in the female figure he saw danger (Taylor, 203; Landy, 242-6; Field, 185). He was not alone in this attitude:  The female figure as a femme fatale was a dominant heroine in art and literature at the turn of the century.  Sue Taylor notes that Gauguin “peering into the black abyss of alienation, betrayal, abandonment, and his own mortality . . . discovered Oviri, the consummation of his distressing relationship with female acquaintances, prostitutes, mistresses, and wife (Taylor, 204).” According to this scenario, the wolf in Oviri, exhausted in a bloody pond, is symbolic of Gauguin himself victimized by a femme fatale, a seductive and destructive incarnation of Judith, Salomé, and the Sphinx, as depicted in the Black Venus.  This is convincing in a literal, biographical sense.  But in conjunction with such self-portraits as Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait at the Kunstindustrimuseet in Copenhagen (G65), Gauguin as a Grotesque Head at the Musée d’Orsay (G66, fig. 1), and the mask in Black Venus (G91), the work Oviri acts not only as a sign of Gauguin’s personal trauma but also as an articulate self-portrait on a symbolic level.   A review of the contemporary commentary about Oviri reveals the transgressive aspect of the ceramic sculpture in addition to an association of the work with rejuvenation through the destructive and subversive power of the female figure and animal (Morice) which are entangled in the form of the grotesque. Hence, by constructing his symbolic alter-ego Oviri, a seductive, destructive, and yet creative figure, Gauguin “revised” the stereotypical femme fatale of Symbolist tradition and séraphîtus séraphîta to produce a new savage/non-Western yet grotesque/Western man. Gauguin accomplished this transformation by means of the grotesque expressed in a craft medium.  By regarding ceramic itself as “grotesque” and “defiant,” in Gauguin’s artistic milieu, the artist rejects both conventional ceramics and sculpture.

I have employed the grotesque, or monstrous, as important critical categories on the two levels: the inherent connection of craft (“ceramic”) to the grotesque and the formal and thematic use of the term in his work.  While masquerading as an outcast such as Jean Valjean, a sufferer, or Christ, as well as a monster such as Lucifer, Gauguin created “monstrosities” to form a disturbing savage body in which the traditional iconographies of Symbolist androgyny and the Polynesian savage confront each other.  Rather than considering Gauguin’s exotic fantasy only in the context of French colonialism and Tahiti, I view Gauguin’s monstrous images, more broadly, as emblematic of a new approach to the grotesque in the guise of ceramic sculpture.


* This paper is part of my doctoral dissertation “Ultra-Moderne, Ultra-Sauvage: Paul Gauguin’s Ceramics and Sculpture,” completed at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, September 2005.  Special thanks are given to my advisor Linda Nochlin, Robert Lubar and Robert Storr.  This research was made possible by funds that I received from IFA and the Samuel Kress Travel Fellowship in the History of Art.  Originally I presented this material in a paper at the international symposium “The Centennial of Paul Gauguin’s Death” at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 12, 2003.  I would like to express my thanks to the director Friborg Flemming and curator Sidsel Maria Søndergaard for the invitation and for providing me with the privilege of privately viewing some of Gauguin’s works.  Many thanks also go to Doris Shores and Barbara Magalnick for their comments and suggestions.


As abbreviations, “G” stands for Christopher Gray, Sculpture and Ceramics of Paul Gauguin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963); reprinted New York: Hacker Art Books, 1980.





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Yeon Shim Chung (Shim Chung) is currently an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York where she teaches art history. Chung has participated in several international exhibitions, including The Moving Drawing of Jheon Soocheon: The Line that Crosses America (2005), Digital Paradise (2005), and Special Effects: New York-Daejeon (2002); the last of these was coordinated with Lawrence Rinder, then a curator at the Whitney Museum. Chung also presented numerous papers at the College Art Association. Her forthcoming article is entitled “The Modern Girl as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea.”




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