The statuette was included in the 1881 exhibition of the Impressionists — a group that Gauguin wheedled his way into as a collector. At first he was only an amateur artist, holding onto a day job as a stockbroker’s assistant. Yet by 1885 his commitment to art was so total that he had abandoned his family in Denmark and returned to Paris alone. His painting, initially under the influence of Pissarro and other Impressionists, grew bolder and more flamboyant, but he found even greater freedom in objects. He carved a pear-wood sarcophagus, incised with Degas-vintage ballerinas and laughing faces borrowed from Japanese netsuke. He also learned the rudiments of ceramics and started crafting vases, bowls and other containers. Sometimes these were functional, more often they were just decorative, but almost always they were grotesque. Ceramics also started to appear in the paintings, as you can see in this show’s cogent pairings: a still life of oranges in a stoneware bowl, painted in 1888, hangs in front of the bowl itself, its handle gripped by a bathing girl.
Mon Dieu, these ceramics — or “monstrosities,” as he aptly called them. The vases and jugs are wobbly, asymmetric, gloriously uncouth. They hammer the distinction between sculpture and craft into powder. They also easily conflate European, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Mesoamerican motifs, which Gauguin would have studied/stolen from new photographic reproductions as well as colonial expositions. One stoneware vase is shaped like an askew tree stump, with a pair of women’s heads growing from its top. An astounding vase from 1887–88 depicts the Greek myth of Leda and the swan; Gauguin renders the scene around the vessel with a proto-Cubist multiplicity of perspectives, and crafts the vase’s handle out of the cob’s beak and neck. Of course, Leda’s encounter with the swan should properly be called a rape; sexual violence is everywhere in Gauguin’s art, and the ceramics as much as the paintings are imbued with sexual overtones. Several are signed “PGo,” a phonetic initialism that recalls the sailor’s slang term for a penis.