Why Is the Art World Divided over Gauguin’s Legacy?

Meredith Mendelsohn
Aug 3, 2017 8:00PM

To some, Paul Gauguin is one of Modernism’s great bohemian renegades, a giant of Post-Impressionism who broke free from Europe’s bourgeois shackles in a trailblazing, soul-searching quest for creative liberation in the South Seas.

To others, he was a fraudulent cad, milking the myth of the noble savage to satisfy his exotic fantasies while boosting the market for his art back home. He is one of history’s great dilemmas, and more than a century after he painted his controversial compositions of nude, brown-skinned Tahitian girls—including several of his pubescent lovers—the art world continues to grapple with his legacy.

Overlooking the ugly reality of Gauguin’s pretty paintings, museums have tended to turn the spotlight on his artistic achievements, which, to be fair, are not in dispute. His vibrant, balmy color harmonies and radically decorative, flattened surfaces had a huge impact (on the Western canon, anyway), influencing everyone from Bonnard to Picasso and Matisse. And his move away from Impressionism toward a more narrative, personal, expressionistic style opened the door to weightier subject matter.

(It’s also worth noting that his works command astronomical prices at auction, and his 1892 painting When Will You Marry? is thought to be the second most expensive painting ever sold.)

But while there are plenty of white, male artists whose troubling lifestyles can be understood somewhat separately from their art, the difficulty with Gauguin is that his behavior is laid bare on his canvases. It doesn’t take a politically minded scholar or critic to recognize that his representations of nude Tahitians reflect a sexual and racial fantasy forged from a position of patriarchal, colonialist power.

Paul Gauguin
Contes Barbares (Primitive Tales), 1902
"Paul Gauguin" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, (2015)
Paul Gauguin
Nafea faaipoipo ((When Will You Marry?), 1892
"Paul Gauguin" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen (2015)

American University art history professor Norma Broude, a feminist scholar of 19th-century European art and editor of the forthcoming book Gauguin’s Challenge: New Perspectives After Postmodernism (Bloomsbury Academic: 2018), describes the differing attitudes toward Gauguin as a “vast chasm.”

On the one side is Gauguin’s “perennial popularity in the art world, fueled by aesthetically focused exhibitions that appear with regularity in major museums worldwide,” she says, and on the other is the “mistrust and even abhorrence with which a segment of the academic world, unable to move beyond earlier feminist and post-colonialist critiques, continues to regard him and his oeuvre.”

The oft-told tale of Gauguin’s journey from stockbroker to South Seas expat bears repeating. Born during the 1848 Revolution in Paris to a leftist journalist father and (ironically) the daughter of feminist activist Flora Tristan, Gauguin spent his earliest years with his family in Peru, hiding out from Napoleon’s conservative new regime. He joined the merchant marines and navy in his late teens and, when he returned to Paris, he became a stockbroker and started painting and collecting Impressionist work.

Unemployed and penniless after the stock market crashed in 1882, he turned to painting full-time, studying with Camille Pissarro. He soon became fed up with the oppressive social mores of Parisian life (and the Impressionists), and poked around more pastoral locales, including Pont-Aven, a rural village in Brittany, where he fleshed out his early interest in what he saw as more authentic subjects unspoiled by modern life, like the devoutly Christian Breton villagers.

Inspired by popular accounts of the savage and free-spirited ethos of the tropics, and seduced by the Tahiti exhibit at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (where France was promoting its new colony to potential European settlers), Gauguin grew determined to set up a studio in the South Seas. “At the atelier of the Tropics, I will perhaps become the Saint John the Baptist of the painting of the future, invigorated there by a more natural, more primitive, and above all, less spoiled life,” he wrote in 1890 to his friend Vincent van Gogh.

Gauguin spent two famously stormy months in Arles with the Dutch artist and then hatched his plan, selling paintings to fund his voyage and finagling additional support from France’s Ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts under the ruse that he would document life in Tahiti for the French government.

But when Gauguin arrived in Papeete in 1891, he realized that French colonial rule and a century of missionary intervention had spoiled his utopian vision. As he described in his Tahitian travelogue Noa Noa—a largely fictional, sexed-up account that was plagiarized, in part, from earlier tales of Pacific Island conquest—the island was nothing like he’d imagined.

“It was the Tahiti of former times which I loved,” he wrote. “That of the present filled me with horror.”  (To start, the girls weren’t naked; they were dressed in bulky high-necked gowns, courtesy of the church.)

He left the Tahitian capital for more remote, pre-colonial parts of the island but never quite found his “exotic utopia of cultural difference,” as art historian Stephen Eisenman aptly described it. So Gauguin, as many art historians agree, created his fantasy himself, in both his canvases and writings. The bright “tropical” fabrics we see in his paintings were imported from Europe, and the mysticism he tried to pictorialize was a hybrid of European and ancient Tahitian traditions.

Paul Gauguin
Cavaliers sur la plage (II) (Riders on the Beach (II), 1902
"Paul Gauguin" at Fondation Beyeler
Paul Gauguin
Matamua (In Olden Times), 1892
"Paul Gauguin" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen (2015)

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 Paula Modersohn-Becker and Amrita Sher-Gil 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.

Paul Gauguin
Aha oe feii? (What! Are You Jealous?), 1892
"Paul Gauguin" at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen (2015)

In Tahiti, meanwhile, the tourism industry continues to market the primitive utopia that Gauguin had imagined. A luxury cruise ship named the Paul Gauguin is touted for its ability to reach smaller coves than the larger vessels, while there is no shortage on the island of merchandise emblazoned with facsimiles of the artist’s paintings.

But Gauguin’s enduring presence has also provided contemporary Pacific Island artists with a rich visual framework to underscore Gauguin’s stereotypes and clichés and “to craft an intervention in work about their own postcolonial identities,” says Childs.

Rarotonga-based Kay George and Auckland artist Tyla Vaeau, for instance, both incorporate photographs of themselves and friends into facsimiles of Gauguin’s paintings, drawing attention to how “colonial representations continue to influence Pacific representations,” writes Vercoe.

As for the curatorial sector of the art world that is more concerned with elevating Gauguin’s achievements, Vercoe wonders if there might be “a backlash to the identity politics of the 1990s” at work. “I was invited to a curatorial roundtable in the States in 2013 to participate and to give a ‘Pacific’ response to Gauguin,” she says, “and I was really intrigued by how surprised and almost offended everyone seemed to be that we didn’t think he was this great guy!”

Meredith Mendelsohn