He spent his Tahitian years with an eye toward the French market, producing paintings, drawings, woodcuts, and ceramics full of tropical clichés to sell at home. He also took three young wives (ages 13, 14, and 14), infected them with syphilis, and eventually died from syphilitic complications at the age of 54 in the remote Marquesas Islands.
“There is a real blind spot when it comes to the more problematic aspects of Gauguin’s sojourn in Polynesia,” says Caroline Vercoe, an art history professor and associate dean at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, who has studied contemporary Pacific Island artists’ responses to Gauguin. “A lot of the way that he is framed, like many of the male ‘hero’ art figures in the canon, has more to do with progressing the Euro American art canon to keep it as Eurocentric as possible.”
It’s easy to take for granted that until the 1990s, which saw the rise of identity politics, there was little discussion, if any, about the exoticist clichés and racial stereotypes—like that of the languorous, sensuous savage—that Gauguin perpetuated. But even in 1988, then-director of the National Gallery of Art in D.C.
, J. Carter Brown, was well-aware that “The Art of Paul Gauguin,” a massive traveling Gauguin retrospective, might benefit from a disclaimer.
In the forward to the catalog he writes: “There is another motivation behind the title. We have chosen ‘the art’ not merely in preference to ‘the painting’ of Paul Gauguin, but also to underscore our opposition to an exhibition centering on the artist’s life. Although the catalogue contains a thoroughly documented chronology, the exhibition stresses his production as artist rather than the exotic, troubled, and fascinating life that has attained almost mythological proportions and is better left to biography and film.”
It was on the heels of this globetrotting blockbuster that two game-changing Gauguin texts emerged, Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism (1989) and Griselda Pollock’s Avant-Garde Gambits 1888-1893: Gender and the Colour of Art History (1992).
Both drew attention to Modernism’s construction of the pre-modern “other,” as well as to the unchallenged power and privilege of the white male artist to exploit and erase indigenous female identities in the name of art. Both initiated a wave of critical Gauguin studies that continues today, ranging from investigations of racial attitudes in the late 19th century, what Eisenman has called “the golden age of racial theories”—which prospered thanks to the West’s need to legitimize the slave trade—to fresh analyses of Gauguin’s impact on female artists.
In Broude’s forthcoming book, for instance, Elizabeth Childs, an art history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, looks at contemporary responses to Gauguin’s work but also makes an argument that in the early 20th century, such female artists as
adapted Gauguin’s style in their own self-portraits as a way of “painting themselves into the modernist idiom” from which they had been excluded.