The French painter Paul Gauguin was a man in love with the idea of a place. His Tahiti was pure: unsullied by outside influence, its people primitive, and its gods powerful. In reality, by the time Gauguin first visited in 1891, the island’s culture had already been permanently changed by French colonialists. Undaunted, Gauguin remained dedicated to his vision of paradise on earth, and through his art celebrated the idealized Tahitian culture he so longed to experience.
While I was familiar with Gauguin’s famous paintings of Tahitian women, I didn’t really know much else about him. So this exhibition, which I did not research ahead of time, seemed a good opportunity to learn about his oeuvre beyond the Tahiti subject matter. Gauguin: Metamorphoses now on view at MoMA is a show about the artist’s prints of…Tahiti! While the subject matter is not new, the show offers a more nuanced look at Gauguin by examining his artistic process and technique in the mediums of printing, sculpture and ceramics.
Three key points about Paul Gauguin’s process:
1) He sampled his own work. Gauguin revisited the subjects of his paintings. From complete scenes to isolated motifs, he experimented with creating new interpretations through print variations. One version might be light and abstract and another dark and detailed, the mood of the work changing according to the printer’s craft.
The visitor experience: what worked
Exhibition design: The galleries are open with plenty of room for visitors to linger, and the dark blue of the walls sets off the artwork, adding a feeling of intimacy to the environment at the same time.
Digital elements: Really, this is part of exhibition design but I call it out separately here because I think the three ipad tutorials on Gauguin’s techniques are very effective, and necessary in a show like this. Similar in-gallery tutorials were successfully integrated into the Metropolitan Museum’s Interwoven Globe textile show and the Brooklyn Museum’s John Singer Sargent show last year.
Audio guide: Like the Guggenheim, MoMA appears to have put its app onto its audio device without any modification. The assets (narration/images) are good but the onscreen navigation is clunky. To return to the main menu (a photo strip), I had to push an “X” at least two times (maybe three?) on a not-very-responsive touchscreen to close out the windows covering the menu. How about a shortcut key back to the exhibition’s intro screen? It’s too bad that just as that museums are loading up unmodified apps, the device hardware is losing the hard keys that could provide easy solutions.
It will be interesting to see how the audio guides develop. Right now there is no consistency in behaviors across script flow, app, device, or performance from museum to museum. Museums may be embracing digital but the audio guides are becoming less user-friendly in the process.
Exhibition site: I’m a fan of dedicated exhibition sites in general, but this one loads inconsistently. Several times I encountered a split screen obscured by the floating black navigation box. When the site does load correctly it is a long scrolling page that uses awkwardly labeled collages as navigation prompts. All the information is there if you need it, but otherwise stick to the exhibition’s straightforward page on the MoMA site.
Gauguin: Metamorphoses is on view at MoMA through June 8, 2014. If you haven’t visited recently, MoMA is now open to the public seven days a week, and stopping for lunch at The Modern makes it an ideal New York City outing.