Gauguin was devoted to various disciplines, including pottery. From 1886 onwards, he made stoneware ‘ceramic sculptures’, an uncommon, entirely new art.
This flower vase is known as Atahualpa. It was the critic Félix Fénéon who underlined the tragic dimension of this “Atahualpa dispossessed, his mouth torn into a chasm” during a Parisian gallery exhibition that displayed several of Gauguin’s works in the winter of 1887-1888.
By alluding to the last Inca Emperor, assassinated by Pizarro in 1532, the writer was doubtless referring to Gauguin’s South American origins and to the models who inspired him.
Indeed, the artist drew on diverse, often unpretentious, sources – ranging from Japanese and pre-Columbian Mexican vases to vernacular European ceramics – to produce unique, unsettling works.
The peculiarity of the vase, which represents a human bust, resides in a removed skullcap, replaced by a gaping hole. The space left behind is all the more troubling as a surprising smile contrasts with the brutality of this disappearance.
The attire, decorated with butterflies, sharpens this disparity and introduces a comical, even grotesque, aspect.
Gauguin again expresses his attraction to contrasts : the broad male face’s thick goatee and discreet, engraved tuft of hair are masculine traits, but the bust also features a dimple alongside a close-fitting tunic dotted with butterflies, both feminine, youthful characteristics. Lastly, a sexual connotation in the main aperture cannot be denied: it recalls female genitals, which we find in a work produced several years later, on the back of the famous Oviri.
The vase’s strangeness reaches its height on the reverse side: Gauguin created a hybrid being with enormous ears, masterly exploring metamorphosis and polysemy of shapes.