Gauguin and his Unsavoury Past

1892, Paul Gauguin, When Will You Marry?

When I was eleven, they started making us write what was forebodingly termed as “Art Essays” at school. Considering that the vast majority of students had no interest in the art lessons in the first place, and most of the staff viewed it as an auxiliary subject, a vast amount of time and energy was expended by pre-teen girls on thinking of the most inventive and convincing excuses in order to evade actually having to write one. We were each assigned an artist to write about and the first artist I was allocated was Gauguin.

Retrospectively, giving an eleven year old a book about Gauguin’s life could be deemed more than a little inappropriate. In one way he is an archetypal romantic philandering character – leaving his wife and family and career as a banker and leaving France in favour of Tahiti, where the weather was warm, the colours striking and the women exotic. It sounds like the classic escapist’s fantasy. Except for the syphilis. And the paedophilia. That’s the kind of stuff that gets brushed over when you’re eleven. Instead you point out the brilliant colours, the use of heavy line and strangely emotionless yet enticing faces of the nubile Tahitian women.

Ten years later however, my mind wanders and makes me ask the question: should the less than savoury aspects of the artist have a bearing on how we view their artwork? Indeed, are the darker themes he hints towards the reason why Gaugain’s work is so striking as opposed to some of the forgettable insubstantial paintings of his contemporary Renoir?

To answer this we must ask what is it that makes us appreciate a painting in the first place? To what must we relate: the subject matter or the artist’s mindset? Do we share a point of reference with the artist – do we reach a mutual understanding – or rather are we being invited into their head? Francis Bacon once claimed that every piece that an artist produces is in effect a self portrait, which would therefore suggest that the depiction of the subject is secondary at least to what the art can tell us about the artist, as the artist is in effect depicting themselves.

Maybe that’s what’s so exciting about looking at art in the first place. We are being given the opportunity to see through someone else’s eyes. And no, I don’t mean that in a literal “he thought the sky was pink” way and that everyone walked around with heavy black outlines, but Gauguin manages to depict the somewhat awkward interpersonal relationships between figures. One of my favourite examples of this is his painting “Nafea faa ipoipo?(When will you marry?), where despite the vibrancy of the colours and the superficially pleasant subject matter of two sisters, there is a marked discomfort in both their poses, facing away from each other, with the foreground figure leaning forward, as if to escape the influence of her sister. The face of the right hand figure, placed as she is in the background, appears somewhat resentful and disapproving, and it is interesting to see that the sister placed behind is dressed in a much more western style than her sister, who wears boldly patterned traditional Tahitian clothing. If we are to take the view that every piece of art is a self portrait, as Bacon suggests, it would be logical to suggest that the traditionally dressed sister who is leaning away represents Gauguin himself, who is attempting to escape from the more strict sensibilities of the disapproving French society, symbolised by the background sister.

So should this insight into other people’s minds allow us a) to see the seedier side of their nature and b) to forgive it? Should we overlook the indiscretions, or worse in Gauguin’s case just because of the pleasure that viewing his paintings has brought millions of art lovers? It’s a question of utilitarianism in a way, should the pain of the few – underage girls who Gauguin infected with syphilis – be cancelled out by the pleasure of the many? Or should we feel guilty at enjoying something that is the product of a morally reprehensible character?

Of course, Gauguin is not the only artist to have a celebrated career and yet have a less than perfect social record. We find examples in literature and film-making. For example, Roald Dahl is a highly celebrated children’s author. I’m sure pretty much everyone at this university will have read a Roald Dahl book or will have had one read to them as a child, and most people will have enjoyed the stories and remember the outcomes – which is surely an indicator of a good story.

Roald Dahl was also reported to be vehemently anti-Semitic. This did not stop my Jewish parents from reading The BFG or James and the Giant Peach to me as a child. Does this illustrate a view that we can tolerate intolerant behaviour for the sake of a good book? Does literary talent constitute a moral “get out of jail free” card?

Perhaps even a literal “get out of jail free” card, if we consider Roman Polanski, the critically acclaimed film director, who fled to France in 1978 before he could be charged in America with the rape of a thirteen year old girl. As a French citizen, Polanski could not be extradited to America and it was only in 2009 that he was arrested in Zurich. Polanski received much support from public figures, including the French Minister for Culture and Communication, Frédéric Mitterrand, as well as a long list of celebrities, with over a hundred people in the film industry signing a petition calling for Polanski’s release, including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, and David Lynch.

So please, I ask of you: when they eventually discover the bodies buried in my back garden, the child prostitution ring I’m masterminding in Eastern Europe and the meth lab in my kitchen, please don’t forget that I won the Mary Plummer Award for Art at my school when I was eighteen.

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