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Album of Ten Woodcuts The Night (Te Po)

Paul Gaugin

The Courtauld Institute of Art

The Courtauld Institute of Art
London, United Kingdom

When Gauguin returned to France from his first sojourn in Tahiti in August 1893, he envisaged publishing a memoir, based on his travel journal as well as local legends and anthropological observations. It was to include poems by Charles Morice, one of his key supporters, and would be illustrated with ten prints. Its ostensible purpose, according to a letter to his wife Mette, was to publicise his adventures and to elucidate for a French audience the paintings he had produced in Tahiti. However, given Gauguin’s deep ambivalence toward explaining his work, ‘Noa Noa’ gave rise (perhaps deliberately) to further mysteries. The prints are not illustrations in the conventional sense, and their Tahitian titles would have been incomprehensible to their original viewers (only a single print is titled in French). Not only is the relationship between the prints and text unclear, there also appears to be no recognised order to the prints. Gauguin worked on the woodblocks for the ‘Noa Noa’ prints from December 1893 through March 1894. Although the publication did not materialise during his lifetime, he exhibited the prints in his studio in 1894. Their imagery relates to sketches in his journal and to the paintings and sculptures he made during his first stay in Tahiti and epitomises Gauguin’s habit of returning repeatedly to the same motifs, reworking them each time to new ends. In spite of his stated purpose of introducing his audience to the customs and mythology of Tahiti, the prints could be more accurately described as a voyage through the artist’s imagination. Indeed, as Morice later wrote, ‘here is the true Tahiti, that is to say faithfully imagined’. Prior to the ‘Noa Noa’ prints, Gauguin had only produced a single set of prints, the so-called ‘Volpini Suite’ (1889) of zincographs. The ‘Noa Noa’ series is his first foray into woodblock printing and showcases his idiosyncratic approach. Gauguin used small end-grain boxwood blocks, typically used for wood engraving – a technique then associated primarily with finely detailed mass-produced illustrations. While he took advantage of the blocks’ tight grain for fine cutting and worked partly with the gravers typically used for wood engraving, he also availed himself of a range of less conventional tools – gouges and chisels more commonly used for woodcuts or sculpture (particularly apparent in the rendering of the shore in Auti Te Pape), etching needles, knives, razor blades and sandpaper. In essence, he treated the blocks like low-relief sculptures, bringing together sculpture, drawing and various printmaking techniques in a single work (fig. 87). The sculptural surfaces of the blocks, combined with Gauguin’s preference for varying their inking to produce an array of different effects, made printing a consistent edition from them a complex undertaking. Samuel Courtauld’s set of prints comes from a portfolio printed in Copenhagen eighteen years after Gauguin’s death by his youngest son, Pola. In 1919, Pola purchased eight of the ten ‘Noa Noa’ woodblocks from the dealer Eugène Druet with a view to publishing a new edition. Only after two years of struggle did he and the publisher, Christian Cato, succeed in issuing an edition that captured every element of the blocks’ surfaces; this was achieved by using two different ink rollers, one soft and one hard, which covered the entire printing surface while leaving clear even the shallowest incisions. In contrast to the impressions printed by Gauguin himself, which frequently obscured or totally effaced areas of his designs, these posthumous impressions are faithful documentary records of the blocks, with nothing added or removed.

Details

  • Title: Album of Ten Woodcuts The Night (Te Po)
  • Creator: Paul Gaugin
  • Creator Lifespan: 1848-1903
  • Date Created: 1893-1894
  • Physical Dimensions: 20.4 x 35.9 cm
  • Type: Print
  • Rights: Photo Ⓒ The Courtauld
  • External Link: Explore The Courtauld's collection
  • Medium: Woodblock print
  • Art Movement: Post-Impressionism
  • Acquisition Credit: Samuel Courtauld bequest, 1948

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