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PRINT September 2010

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Paul Gauguin

SOMETIMES IT TAKES an exhibition for us to see a familiar artist’s work afresh. This is certainly the case for Paul Gauguin, whose reputation increasingly tends to obscure his achievement. Viewers have long been suspicious both of his art and of his personal behavior (taking a thirteen-year-old “wife” in Tahiti is the best known of his misdemeanors). His countless depictions of “primitive” Breton peasants and half-naked Polynesian women are condemned, respectively, for their metropolitan condescension and for their sexual and racial stereotyping, and his work is also taken to task for its inauthenticity: Although presented as the direct record of his experiences in Brittany and the South Seas, it has repeatedly been shown to be copied from commercial photographs or tourist postcards and from the compositions of colleagues. The same is true of his prolix writings. Noa Noa (1893–94), his semifictionalized account of his first Tahitian trip, invariably leaves a bad taste in the mouth, both for its primitivizing descriptions of Polynesians and their culture and for its shameless plagiarism (most famously of Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout’s 1837 account of Polynesian mythology, large sections of which Gauguin copied verbatim as though they were the words of his young mistress, whispering the secrets of the South Seas as she lay by his side in the dark Tahitian night). Camille Pissarro was the first of many to smell a rat, complaining that Gauguin was “always poaching on someone’s ground; now he is pillaging the savages of Oceania.”

Such is the force of this view that it has become more and more difficult to remember what Gauguin was valued for in the first place. Standing in front of his work in the exhibition “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” at London’s Tate Modern this fall will help to jog our memories. Gauguin’s colleagues—when not appalled by his behavior—were impressed by two aspects of his work: first, its rejection of the straitjacket of mimesis (an innovation whose radicality we tend to underestimate after a century of abstraction); second, its deployment of complex narrative structures (this was equally revolutionary, a clear refusal of the devotion to the retinal that had by the mid-1880s become the hallmark of advanced painting). It is this second aspect that the curators of the Tate exhibition—Amy Dickson, Tamar Garb, Christine Riding, and Belinda Thomson—have placed front and center, exploring the intertwining of diverse religious and mythical narratives in Gauguin’s densely worked Symbolist iconographies and reexamining his ties to writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé (the poet famously hosted a farewell banquet on the eve of the artist’s departure for Tahiti in 1891).

In focusing on narrative, the exhibition risks making the artist seem rather nineteenth-century, one of those unfortunate souls who missed the modernist boat as it set sail for the pleasures of pure painting. But this high-modernist account is by now mostly discredited, and the Tate’s attention to Gauguin’s storytelling—and in particular to the kinds of stories he told—is to be commended, not least because it serves to dismantle some of the more persistent misperceptions regarding his work. It is generally assumed that he painted the South Pacific as an earthly paradise. This is partly true, but his vision was equally marked—as visions of paradise perhaps necessarily are—by a sense of loss. A mournful refrain sounds in both his writings (in Noa Noa he repeatedly observed the melancholy of the island and its inhabitants) and his art. As the exhibition demonstrates, his paintings could be gloomy—Te faaturuma (Brooding Woman), 1892, is just one of many images of morose natives—and even openly elegiac. Parahi te marae (There Is the Temple), 1892, which shows the empty space of a disused sacred precinct and has the specter of a long-vanished Tahitian effigy scratched indistinctly into its lushly painted surface, is in both theme and form a picture of pastness, of a culture that disappears before our eyes as the idol sinks into invisibility.

In seeing Tahiti in this way, Gauguin was not unusual: Melancholy meditations on the lost Polynesian paradise had been commonplace ever since the late eighteenth century, when the great Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot wrote that the Tahitians and their way of life were fated to decline and disappear because of the arrival of the Europeans. What is specific to Gauguin is the form in which he clothed such sentiments. Where countless Diderot epigones used conventional prose forms—travel accounts, novels, and the like—to chronicle the destruction of Tahiti, Gauguin built the topos of loss into the very structure of his art and writing. Diverses Choses (Various Things, 1896–98), a sprawling manuscript the artist penned in Tahiti, opens with a description of its own form: “Scattered notes, without order like Dreams, made up of fragments, like life. And because of the fact that several collaborate here; the love of beautiful things glimpsed in one’s neighbor’s house.” The first sentence aptly characterizes Gauguin’s aphoristic and disjointedly anecdotal writing; the second makes explicit that the pages to follow will be constructed not only from the artist’s own thoughts but also from the words of others, textual fragments that caught the artist’s eye and that he harvested from a dizzyingly wide array of sources. That this is stated openly requires us to think differently about Gauguin: not as a plagiarist, but as someone who allows us to sense that he worked always with the already written. His images may make the same point. His most infamous painting, Manao tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching), 1892, was based on a photograph of Manet’s Olympia, 1863: more evidence, it is often claimed, of the inauthenticity of Gauguin’s vision, of the falsity of his claim to have penetrated Tahiti. Quite so. But the openness with which the debt to Manet is declared suggests also Gauguin’s acknowledgment of the iterative nature of his project, a recognition that it is unavoidably mediated.

None of this gets Gauguin off the hook as regards his behavior: Manao tupapau shows his thirteen-year-old mistress alone in the dark, vulnerable and frightened, and in his account of the picture’s genesis the artist leaves the clear impression that he was indecently and unforgivably aroused by her fear. But the painting’s intertextuality does suggest that we might think about Gauguin as we have come to think about Manet himself. In his day Manet was criticized, as Gauguin would be, as a plagiarist, stealing compositions and figures from the works of his forebears. Now it is generally agreed that he deliberately foregrounded his sources, though the question of why he did so is still debated. Foucault’s answer—that Olympia was the first “museum” painting, cognizant of the new relationship of painting to itself and of the interdependence that paintings acquire in museums—offers a way of approaching Gauguin, too. But for “in museums” we must substitute something along the lines of “in the age of technological reproducibility.” Gauguin’s access to “Tahiti” was inevitably shaped by the mass-reproduced images and writerly fantasies found in the innumerable prints, photographs, and guidebooks that ceaselessly repeated over and over the same old clichés about Polynesia. (The Tate exhibition includes a selection of these texts and images.) His imagination was saturated by this material before he ever set foot in Tahiti; and even there, with his feet planted firmly in the tropical soil, Gauguin couldn’t penetrate this screen, couldn’t see what was before his eyes without immediately translating it into received opinion. What is exceptional in his work is the degree to which he allowed this to show. His lament, one suspects, was not for Tahiti itself (though he knew well that the twin toxins of disease and missionary Christianity had laid waste to the population and culture of the island); it was, rather, an elegy to the waning possibility of having any original experience of the place—perhaps of anything—in a world already suffused with texts and images.

Still, Gauguin renders complicated this reading of his work. Although the citation of Olympia speaks of the iterative and thus of the inauthentic, the formal qualities of Manao tupapau pull in the opposite direction, presenting the artist not as a detached observer (the painting’s avoidance of perspective means that there is no sense of distance between us and the scene) but as a participant who genuinely shares the young girl’s experience, sensing like her the presence of the tupapau. The image’s simplified form and color allow Gauguin to intimate that he has shed his civilized ways, that he has become, like the Tahitian, a “primitive.” It is this latter claim for authenticity that tended to be heard in Gauguin’s public pronouncements, which almost always sought aggressively to shore up the questionable credibility of both his work and his contact with Brittany and Polynesia (hence his oft-repeated claim to have become a “savage”). But this avowal of authenticity was rarely carried over wholesale into either his paintings or the wide range of prints and monotypes he produced during an extended exploration of reproductive techniques following the first Tahitian trip—for example, the ten woodcuts he made to accompany Noa Noa, two of which are on view at the Tate. Presented in a Symbolist vocabulary of dimly sensed forms and half-understood narrative fragments, the prints are, on the one hand, meant to suggest that Gauguin has come to grips with the mysteries of Tahiti’s mythological universe. Yet the ceaseless variation among the impressions Gauguin pulled from the blocks generates a sense of deathly repetition, a melancholy recognition of the difficulty of entering the dreamed-of paradise. Similar doubts surface rather surprisingly in the self-portraits that feature heavily in the Tate exhibition, though here it is the encounter with the self that is rendered uncertain. For the most part the images are successfully self-serving, presenting the artist as a seer gifted with insight into the profound truths of existence. Yet the self-portraits speak also of anxiety: The multiple personae—artist-as-Christ, artist-as-devil, artist-as-Turk, artist-as-martyr (in the remarkable Self-Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head, 1889)—hint that there is no real Gauguin behind the mask, that all is a mere repetition of preassigned roles. If cliché dominated Gauguin’s vision of Tahiti, how much more was this true of his construction of self? Seeing these self-fashionings gathered together reveals to us a new Gauguin, one naggingly aware of the emptiness of much that he professed even as he continued to profess it; a Gauguin, that is to say, less bullishly sure of himself, and all the more interesting for that.

“Gauguin: Maker of Myth” is on view at Tate Modern in London from Sept. 30, 2010, through Jan. 16, 2011; the exhibition travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Feb. 27–June 5, 2011.

Alastair Wright teaches at St. John’s College, University of Oxford, and is cocurator, with Calvin Brown, of “Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints,” opening this month at the Princeton University Art Museum.