In the introduction to his catalog of the graphic works of Paul Gauguin, Marcel Guerin was sad that very few of the woodblocks Gauguin produced for his woodcut prints had survived, especially those made during Gauguin's return to Oceania. The woodblocks are actually reliefs and are cut and finished the same way -- in the rough. All the artworks left by Gauguin at his death were removed from the little hut in the village of Atuana on the island of La Dominique and taken to Papeete on Tahiti, where they were sold at public auction.
They were bought by Victor Segalen, a ship's medical officer, who had arrived just a few weeks after the artist's tragic death. Gauguin's scandalous reputation and the total indifferent to him as an artist made the sale all the more tragic; the items had been dumped into a trunk and shipped to auction to pay off a debt of 1,000 francs, a fine which, along with a jail sentence to which Gauguin had been sentenced shortly before his death. He had offended the government and the local church authorities.
This was carried out in such haste and with such indifference that many smaller woodblocks were missed and left inside the hut. Many years later, these were found tucked away inside the fenceposts surrounding his hut. their condition was sorry indeed. The wood was soft planking and crate siding carved with the grain. The woodblocks were cracked, warped and often gnawed upon by rodents and insects. Careless handling destroyed much of the finer carving, and subsequent rotting and other aging processes have made even the procurement of documented prints impossible.
The variation of surface made the taking of impressions more or less a monoprint event; the wood is not resistant, and a special method had to be worked out for each block. Color was applied minimally with soft rollers to prevent soaking, then a cork burnisher covered with silk was used, applying pressure steadily with just a fingernail. A hard burnisher was used alogn the edges and uncut portions of the block.
Very few of the original artist's proofs survived, not more than two or three out of a possible twenty-five to thirty total originals.
Gauguin's rough-and-tumble woodcuts give us insight into the depth of his life; he knew better and was well-acquainted with the European method of cutting across the grain on larger blocks made by joining smaller blocks together and then sanding them flat. He had a number of such blocks, but did not use them.
The artist produced a very small number of prints from his woodblocks; better known are less successful and more barbaric prints made from the blocks by Louis Roy and the 1921 edition of 100 made by Pola Gauguin.
He took no regard whatever for conventional treatment of wood, and made prints rather oddly, even indifferently. His destruction of several color blocks speak worlds about his desire to leave all European methodology behind him. The conventional techniques he had used in Paris to produce woodcuts were not employed once he had returned to the islands.
Of especial interest is the unusual technique used by Gauguin to make these primitive woodblocks. He refused to use the chisel. The wood is cut with only a needle and a small engraver, and a pocket knife -- making cross-hatching effects so that the outline vanishes. The wood often contained nails, nailholes and packing labels such as the trapezoidal panels taken from a consignment of parasols. He often recut the woodcuts into reliefs or split up larger woodcut panels into smaller ones on which he would cut new images.