As long as art has existed, so have artists. Artists present problems.
Not all artists are decent human beings. Frank Lloyd Wright, an arrogant SOB, ran off with a client’s wife. Caravaggio killed two men, and was on the run and waiting for a papal pardon when he died. No doubt the tribes in prehistoric France hated one of the first painters in the caves of Lauscaux.
We still admire Wright’s buildings and love Caravaggio’s painting and stand in awe of the bison and horses made by those cave artists.
Some artists evoke a stronger response: sexual misconduct places some artists even more beyond the pale. Woody Allen has been accused of abusing his stepdaughters. Director Roman Polanski, who helmed such brilliant movies as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, is currently avoiding the United States, having been charged with drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl. He pled guilty of unlawful sex with a minor and skipped the country when it appeared a judge was going to refuse a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail.
And there is Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gaugin was not a nice man. Christopher Riopelle, co-curator of a show about the painter held at the National Gallery in London, describes him as a “very complicated person, a very driven person, a very callous person.” After a failed career as a stockbroker, he moved to France to become a painter, leaving his wife and five children in Copenhagen. While there, at one point he tempestuously shared a house with Vincent van Gogh. An argument between the two of them led to the mental breakdown during which Vincent cut off part of his ear.
After another stint in the South of France, Gauguin abandoned his family to run away to Tahiti.
In Tahiti, he “married” – to the extent a middle-aged man can marry them — a succession of pubescent girls, impregnating them and giving them syphilis. He painted what are on the surface eloquent portraits of them.
Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women (usually women, rarely men) usually include nudes. The women are exotic, fetishized – a colonialist’s wet dream. Gauguin presents the Tahitians as “noble savages,” exhibiting that picture to Western audiences and fixing it in their minds. The women are presented as demure, passive, subservient. One particularly disturbing picture (Contes Barbares (Primitive Tales) includes a red-headed male figure in beret and painter’s smock anxiously chewing on his nails in the background.
Even the pictures of the women in Western dresses are not without issues. Tehana has Many Parents – a portrait of his child bride in a high-necked dress – has in the background a stylized nude picture and “hieroglyphics” which have no meaning in Tahitian culture. Gauguin could not resist the lure of the exotic, even if he had to make it up.
All of which presents a problem for museum curators, especially those who curate exhibits specifically on Gauguin. Do the problems posed by Gauguin’s life and picture mean that those pictures have no place on museum walls? Are they offensive enough to merit being ignored?
Some museums refuse to display Gauguin. Some museums place explanatory plaques next to exhibits, placing the pictures in the context of Gauguin life and explaining the colonialist impulses behind them. Some museums do nothing.
The media weigh in, too, with ominous articles titled “Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” from the New York Times and from the Independent, “More than a century after his death, has the time finally come to cancel Gauguin?” More reasoned articles appear, too, such as the BBC’s “Gauguin’s ‘strange, beautiful and exploitative’ portraits.”
The pictures are certainly important from an art historical point of view. Gauguin’s use of color and form influenced later painters greatly. His Tahitian pictures are part of a significant oeuvre that forms an important force in subsequent art movements.
At what point does the art transcend the artist, and the subject?
Certainly, the subject matters. Modern-day Tahitians have found ways to protest the clichéd exotic colonialist “otherness” of Gauguin’s paintings, which hang on in Western culture as depictions of Polynesian life.
Gauguin himself presents answers. He had a significant body of work aside from his Tahitian paintings. One of those paintings, After the Sermon, showing Breton peasant women in prayer, demonstrates the startling use of color and form that was to become his trademark. Perhaps exhibiting those pictures might be enough to give a sense of his genius.
Art belongs to the world. Once a painting – or sculpture, or movie – has been sent forth by the artist, in some sense it no longer matters who made it. We can evaluate art on its own merits, and find the Tahitian portraits offensive based on their colonialist “savage” vision of Tahitian life. We can object to his pictures of his child brides based on the sexualization of children.
Paul Gauguin’s art matters. His squalid, terrible, and in the end, evil, life does not.