You May Be Infected Already

But Gauguin & Polynesia at SAM Is the Inoculation You Need

You May Be Infected Already

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Paul Gauguin, Women and a White Horse, 1903

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NOT BY GAUGUIN An emblem of people suffering.
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Courtesy The Indiana University Art Museum
Stone figure (tiki ke'a to), 19th century or earlier, basalt stone, Marquesas Islands.
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Courtesy Of Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art
Paul Gauguin, Faaturuma (Melancholic), 1891, oil on canvas.
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The J. Paul Getty Museum
Paul Gauguin's Arii Matamoe (The Royal End), 1892, oil on canvas.
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Courtesy Auckland Museum
A keyhole (on the other side) and coin slot (visible on top) were added to this bowl by the Auckland Museum as a fundraiser. The artist was Patoromu Tamatea.

Paul Gauguin—the figure who is now inspiring the cooks at Seattle Art Museum's restaurant to serve homemade Spam on pristine white plates, and whose streaky signature is splashed across the front window display at the Belltown high-fashion boutique Baby&Co—is a spectacular problem in modern art history.

There's how he saw himself, and there's how he looks if you're not him. He believed he was a libertine bohemian who escaped the drudgery of banking and family to seek art and sacred truth in the tropics. He sailed to the center of the Polynesian islands, but finding it already too colonized—insufficiently savage—he kept retreating, farther and farther into the islands. He spent the last months of his life (in a pattern he'd developed years earlier, on another island) cohabiting with, and impregnating, a local teenager in a match brokered by the girl's father, following custom (Gauguin the iconoclast did follow custom when it suited him). During these months, the flesh on his legs had ulcerated sores, meaning it was going black and smelly. From sexy, sexy advanced syphilis.

Face palming is the gentlest possible response to the thought of Gauguin stumbling around the Pacific making paintings of what would later be termed "dusky maidens." In no scenes were these maidens seen navigating the oozing bits of Gauguin's body, but once you know even a little about him, you find that he is just so vividly, eye-catchingly gross. If you flay him as a historical figure and lay him out on a table, you find a maggoty cross section of the monster the postcolonial 20th century became, presided over by whiny, violent, and jaw-droppingly self-centered white dudes. One of the direct effects of the century of French colonization that preceded Gauguin's arrival—whose effects he loudly decried both in his writings and in his paintings—was the decimation of the population from causes including diseases like the one he brought into the bedroom of his final girlfriend.

And yet the new show at SAM, Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, is possibly the best of all imaginable post-impressionist blockbusters. Why? Because it may be polite, but it is not a dodge. Despite its backbreaking hardcover catalog (always a sure sign of hero worship), Gauguin & Polynesia pulls off a major trick: It's a Gauguin show that's not The Gauguin Show. This is the first time the art and culture of the islands is given equal treatment to Gauguin's paintings. It's as if, for decades, we've heard only one side of art's version of a founding myth of modern global history, and now we're finally getting contradicting testimony.

The first room in the exhibition is devoted to Gauguin, then you move into Polynesia (walls painted bright yellow, a sacred color in Polynesia), then back to Gauguin... eventually, they mix, and Gauguin seems creepy and sad and dying, while Polynesia grows larger and larger. "This is 17 years of one man's work and two centuries of Polynesian art," as SAM curator Pam McClusky has been saying. McClusky and Chiyo Ishikawa (in charge of SAM's African/Oceanic and European departments, respectively) contributed to the organizing of this exhibition, which will be seen only in Seattle and Copenhagen. (It's worth noting that Gauguin & Polynesia will skip Polynesia. Many of the objects are on loan from European museums where they landed when they were first pilfered from the islands—the ones that weren't burned in Christian bonfires to destroy pagan idols.)

Don't worry, there are plenty of Gauguin paintings, some among his best—the ones with the most death-defying ratio of sheer gall to fruity beauty. In his early island women pictures, he is gawking with a mixture of pity and desire; the women are posed as melancholics, stuffed into Catholic missionary dresses like tortured dolls. More shocking is his candy-colored painting of a decapitated head laid on a bed of white fabric in the middle of a room, like a centerpiece of banquet food, the head's eyes squintily open, the lips parted, the rest of the room a cultural gumbo of designs taken from his various travels.

Those patterned carpets, those geometric wall designs—it all speaks of Matisse to come and, yeah, a proto–United Nations attitude; Gauguin held no particular boundaries in esteem. But he also lived in a self-blind fantasy: The painting of the decapitated head forces the Tahiti of 1891 to represent Gauguin's fantasies of the islands' cannibalistic past. In fact, the painting refers to a real king, who did die (days after Gauguin arrived), and whose funeral was nothing like this (he was not beheaded, and elite Polynesians grieving would have worn hybrid dress, combining European and native styles to create new expressions). In turning islanders into repositories for his own nostalgia, Gauguin denied them whatever adaptive power they did retain in a colonial system.

Gauguin won't draw more people than the Picasso show that swept SAM last year, but I wish he would, because he is in many ways an inoculation against his own disease. He inspires learning. In searching for how to behave, one might ask oneself: WWGND (What Would Gauguin Not Do)? (If you find yourself on a tropical island even today doing something Gauguin might have done, you are doing it wrong.) Major kudos—public health awards, really—should be given to McClusky and Ishikawa, who expose Gauguin's fantasies rather than indulge them. Take the warrior clubs on display. There are two ontologically different categories of warrior clubs: Some are large and made of heavy hardwood. Others are lighter and smaller—made to fit a tourist's suitcase, the labels explain. Gauguin would have taken the approach that these were not equal, that the latter was not as good as the former. But here, both kinds of clubs are invested with their own particular power. What if suitcases are not tombs for tradition, or another version of Christian bonfires? What is regenerated when two cultures clash (and one seems to win)?

These issues are not historical. They are contemporary. At Lawrimore Project just a month ago, Raymond Boisjoly, an artist of French Canadian and Haida descent, lovingly resurrected a souvenir totem he found at a roadside shop into a glowing sculpture dangling with Christmas lights. He fused the two types of warrior clubs. Where Gauguin found messy impurities, other artists (and curators, and historians) have found richer options, options that challenge the contemporary viewer. There's a carved wooden male figure in the exhibition's final gallery who is not an object but a living thing; he was delivered by courier in a ceremony at the museum, and you are instructed to greet him out loud when you enter the room. Will you do it?

Right from the start, the exhibition demonstrates both depletion and plenitude in these islands during Gauguin's moment. There are two opposing vitrines locked in a staring contest in that yellow room. One contains a scoliotic man with giant eyes (shark bone irises, obsidian pupils), exposed ribs, jutting penis. Why is he so thin? Lacking a clear answer to the question (he was found on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, that locus of mystery), he becomes simply an emblem of a people suffering. Directly across from him, another glass vitrine is full of squat, plump figures in stone: tikis, embodiments of a plentiful sacred figure who could create other beings. Gauguin's reaction would have been pity or worship. What would Gauguin not do?

See, if you let it, Gauguin & Polynesia will mess you up. The showstopper in the Maori room is an ornately carved large box—but wait. Why does it have a coin slot and a keyhole on it? Its owner, the Auckland Museum, added those, in order to use the box as a fundraiser. At SAM, the label doesn't mention this. When I asked why, the curators said there wasn't room. But there is room, and the unexplored anomaly is a lost opportunity.

The box was made by the artist Patoromu Tamatea, one of only four artists who are not Gauguin who are named in the show. He gave the box to the Auckland Museum, which added the coin slot and keyhole prostheses later. For some years, the box was put into storage—one can only imagine the museum was embarrassed. But now, when the box is at home in Auckland, it gets displayed inside a glass case, no longer collecting money. Imagine if the Accademia Gallery in Florence screwed a donation slot into the ankle of Michelangelo's David, and a keyhole into the rock on which he stands. Then again, how is that different from reproducing Davids as a million tchotchkes? This hybridized universe of prostheses and tchotchkes and bonfires and suitcases—the one we're in—is the real jungle Gauguin trampled on people trying to escape. recommended


Comments (67) RSS

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the majority of the 20th centuries best artists could be described as self-centered individualists and are equally as "gross" as gauguin [or tried to be]. And if you take the position that the true Art of our time is the music then it makes gauguin look like the baby jesus by comparison. Name the top 10 most influential music icons of the past 40 years; their grossness is a tired cliche.
Posted by porchedge on February 15, 2012 at 12:52 PM · Report this
The Accidental Theologist 2
Really thoughtful. Really excellent. Thank you, Jen.
Posted by The Accidental Theologist http://accidentaltheologist.com on February 15, 2012 at 1:09 PM · Report this
TortoiseTurtle 3
"...you find a maggoty cross section of the monster the postcolonial 20th century became, presided over by whiny, violent, and jaw-droppingly self-centered white dudes."

This speaks volumes... about the author.
Posted by TortoiseTurtle http://slog.thestranger.com on February 15, 2012 at 1:16 PM · Report this
samktg 4
Great article Jen, I disagree with a lot of your opinions on art, but I share your disgust of Gauguin for all the reasons you share in the article. I would love to attend this exhibition were I in Seattle; it sounds like it makes many of the important comparisons that need to be made in order to demonstrate how enormously problematic Gauguin's ouevre is. You're quite right to point out that the issues with Gauguin remain fresh. Today we certainly have many artists inverting the Primitivist lens through which Gauguin viewed the world, but there are still many who pick up that lens and apply it without examining or deconstructing its racist and misogynistic elements.

@3, And which version of history was it that you read where the 20th century was not presided over by whiny, violent, and incredibly self-centered white men? I mean, the West still has yet to recover from WWI, which was the epitome of white guys' whininess, violence, and egotism.
Posted by samktg on February 15, 2012 at 2:30 PM · Report this
Excellent art review!! I Have had the same ambiguous feelings regarding Gaugin's and other Euro-centric art and writings.
Posted by Arls on February 15, 2012 at 3:02 PM · Report this
Huh. And what would you say about that sell-out Michelangelo? Or that violent drunk, Ernest Hemingway?

You disqualify the art because of the misbehavior of the artist.

Then how do you qualify it?

Can Jen Graves possibly find any art better than kindergarten finger painting?

At least with standards like this, you don't have to walk out on the limb and actually address the art itself.
Posted by Paddy Mac on February 15, 2012 at 4:09 PM · Report this
samktg 7
@6, Contextualizing and criticizing are not the same as disqualifying. Feel free to enjoy Gauguin, but you should recognize that he and his work have some pretty fucked-up aspects, especially given how Gauguins problems continue to pop up both in the art world and society at large.
Posted by samktg on February 15, 2012 at 4:32 PM · Report this
Good God Mr.Porchedge, I thought I was a cynic.
Posted by rob225 on February 15, 2012 at 5:48 PM · Report this
I have been totally ambivalent about going to see this show but that's all changed thanks to this review! In fact, I'm now really looking forward to it.
Posted by thanks Jen on February 15, 2012 at 6:13 PM · Report this
TortoiseTurtle 10
@4 the 20th century was not 'presided over' by anyone. Just because the only history you care (or read) about involves them doesn't mean they 'presided over' it. Who's being 'euro-centric' now?

And seriously, calling an artist 'gross' and visualizing how disgusting it would be to have sex with them constitutes art criticism now? And holding him somehow responsible for adopting the ethics of those he lived amongst?

Gauguin can only be understood in the context of this supposed 'history' you speak of?

For god's sake, one man's life does not equal European colonization. And if that is the only lens you can view it through, I'm sorry, you're projecting your own issues. Which is precisely what makes for a BAD article.

Not everything needs to be extrapolated to fit your (borderline, perhaps overtly, racist/sexist) worldviews.
Posted by TortoiseTurtle http://slog.thestranger.com on February 15, 2012 at 6:28 PM · Report this
....anyway, there's this Gauguin show at SAM and, oh yeah, all the paintings are there n' stuff but the REEEAL star of the show is...what?...and oh yeah, let's go back in past slogs and give Scott Lawrimore a redundant and neopotic tired shout out and tie that crappy totem pole piece into the Gauguin show's moment ( it's contemporary-don't ya know?) and then let's just keep beating the dead horse about what a dud Gauguin was and how wrong it was...
and like... what? The masterworks, his paintings?...yeah they're there but, whatever-bag your face I'm sure!!! OMG-did you catch my pic in the paper at the opening?


Posted by northwest mystic on February 15, 2012 at 6:47 PM · Report this
I agree with Jen that, in context, Gauguin can be a very illuminating mirror for all kinds of privileged people today who think they are "bohemian." But I think that it is important to let the works stand on their own -- the viewer needs to get whatever they get out of them. My concern about her strong criticism of his character is that it might suggest his paintings ought to be dismissed altogether.
Posted by fanta@ on February 15, 2012 at 8:04 PM · Report this
samktg 13
@11, If you're going to call me racist and misogynist for wanting to engage Gauguin's art in terms of colonialism, race, and gender - you know, the terms Gauguin asks us to engage him with when he describes himself as a Primitivist - fine. In that case, I'm going to call you completely ignorant of art history and theory, and ignorant of world history in general. This is the stuff I study, late 19th century and early 20th century European art is my main focus. There are many critical and analytical tools at our disposal to try and understand art, but some are more useful than others depending on the situation. Gauguin has asked us to look at his work a certain way. The curators at SAM have asked us to look at Gauguin a certain way. Jen is asking us to look at Gauguin a certain way. What way would you have us look at Gauguin?

I'd also like to take this opportunity to point out that you have poor reading comprehension.
Posted by samktg on February 15, 2012 at 8:15 PM · Report this
samktg 14
By the way, I don't claim to be an authority about this stuff, I do, however, claim to know a fair amount more about this than the average person.

@12, I would hope that most people would be able to look at Gauguin's paintings and recognize their historical and artistic significance even knowing that he was quite an unsavory character. Given the deference with which we view so many other artists and writers who engaged many of the same themes, and led lives only nominally less gross, I'm optimistic.
Posted by samktg on February 15, 2012 at 8:41 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 15
I agree with @10: There is too little art criticism in this review.

Plus, I'm getting tired of people calling Gauguin's art (not him - his ART) "racist" and "misogynist" without actually pointing to a single painting that serves as a glaring example.

I'm not claiming these aren't present in his paintings; I've seen only a tiny portion of his work. Please commenters, Jen - link to a painting that is clearly racist or misogynist, as I haven't seen any myself, and I don't want to continue to be ignorant. (I do appreciate learning what a vile piece of shit he was, but that seems more like a human review.)

And to be clear, by "clearly racist or misogynist," I mean art whose racism/misogyny doesn't hinge on claiming to know Gauguin's private thoughts when he painted it (as Jen is guilty of above, several times over).
Posted by Free Lunch on February 15, 2012 at 9:26 PM · Report this
TortoiseTurtle 16
@14, I still don't get what was so damned unsavory about the guy? I tend to think having syphilis is something that ought to make us feel a little bad for Gauguin, but I suppose that's just me.

And on the contrary, I think my reading comprehension is, in fact, too good. Because I think I saw right through the article straight to it's motivation... "God, another white male artist. I don't want to say anything good about one of them. And everything that can be said about the art itself has already been said, so I'll just trash the guy for not living up to my modern standards and setting it all in the context of the old tried-and-true attack on his sexuality and place of privilege in society. That counts as journalism, right?"

But hey, you study this stuff. Nobody can ever accuse someone who studies art of going a little off the deep end with their overanalysis, right?
Posted by TortoiseTurtle http://slog.thestranger.com on February 15, 2012 at 9:29 PM · Report this
samktg 17
@16, The thing that is particularly unsavory about Gauguin the person is that he married a 13 year old and shtupped kids (and painted about it). Where Jen mentions he married and impregnated a teen without saying the exact age, she's actually being nice to the poor syphilitic fucker. And that's aside from Primitivist world-view he lived by, which posited that those who lived outside of big European cities were primitive and in touch with a child-like, pre-Fall spirituality. It's microcosmic of the infantilization Westerners applied to non-Westerners and used to justify imperialism. This isn't analysis at all, let alone over-analysis, these are bare facts - it's equivalent to 1+1=2. Given that perspective, it makes sense to look at Gauguin's art the way Jen suggests, the way SAM suggests. If you think there is a useful way of looking at this body of work divorced from biography, race, gender, and colonialism, please put it forward.

Also, if what you've just wrote is what you're getting from this article, you have massively missed the point. Sure, there's an element of "God, another white male artist", but then, that exasperation is fairly common in the field, and not at all unreasonable given the overwhelming attention white male artists have received from all quarters. Jen is hardly trashing Gauguin, he did that himself. Furthermore, considering the values that Gauguin expresses in his work are still alive and well and visible in art today, it makes perfect sense to apply a modern critical lens to his oeuvre - while his work was perfectly acceptable in his time and place, it is not acceptable by modern standards. Placed in context, his art is quite useful for whacking contemporary artists upside the head when they perpetuate those values.
Posted by samktg on February 15, 2012 at 10:12 PM · Report this
HuskyQuaker 18
I still like Alice In Wonderland.
Posted by HuskyQuaker on February 15, 2012 at 10:43 PM · Report this
Check out "The Moon and Sixpence," a novel by Maugham about the artist under discussion. It's a good book.
Posted by Timesthree on February 15, 2012 at 11:01 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 20
Yes. Just what I got last time I asked for it: crickets.
Posted by Free Lunch on February 15, 2012 at 11:12 PM · Report this
samktg 21
@Free Lunch, sorry, for some reason your posts either weren't showing up or just weren't registering in my mind. I can't think of a painting he made where you could look at it and say "oh, this is clearly racist, cut and dry" without knowledge of who Gauguin was and what he was trying to portray in his art. You can see over and over where he plays to the male gaze and objectifies women (and children) as sex objects as in this painting, where he depicts his child bride with the same conventions used to depict Venus throughout history. In order to see the racism however, you do have know a bit of his context. You don't have to delve into his private, unknowable thoughts though, to get that information. He wrote a great deal, and his ideas about non-Western cultures are very well documented in the books and essays he published in an attempt to pique prospective buyers' interest in his work. Given that he made his beliefs public, and one can see those beliefs reflected in his work, I'm not totally clear on why you're demanding an example of racism that you might immediately unequivocally recognize as racism.
Posted by samktg on February 15, 2012 at 11:56 PM · Report this
HuskyQuaker 22
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'
Posted by HuskyQuaker on February 16, 2012 at 1:00 AM · Report this
Free Lunch 23
A shorter @21 seems to be if you're racist, your art is unavoidably racist. Sorry, I don't buy it, which is why I asked. Would the same be true for, say, Jackson Pollock? Sounds like the answer is yes.

I doubt critics would grouse about a perceived gaze were the exact same works created by, say, a woman or a monk. Imagine if Renoir were as vile a man. I argue if that changes your opinion of his art, then you're no longer an art critic.
Posted by Free Lunch on February 16, 2012 at 10:07 AM · Report this
@4 'Enormously problematic'? Give me a break.

All of the politically correct histrionics in this review and that you are engaging in here are just a bit comical. The guy lived in the 19th century. I think there were more than a few whiny egoist white guys marrying 13 year olds back then. You study history?

Gaugin was something of an egotistical jerk, ditching his wife and family in France was probably a bit more reprehensible that fornicating with Tahitian teenagers if you ask me, but if anything he was perhaps a tad more enlightened than his contemporaries when it came to the effects of colonialism.

No mention in this review of his nutty philosophical/mystical ideas which for me make his work, particularly the Polynesian work, interesting. Gaugin was way more original, and probably less of a creep, than any number of his contemporaries whose work few politically correct hand-wringers would call 'enormously problematic'.
Posted by Rhizome on February 16, 2012 at 11:09 AM · Report this
samktg 25
@23, At what point then is it acceptable to look at a work of art in context? When a person speaks, we judge their words not only by their strict dictionary meanings, but also by their intent and in terms of who is saying them. A gay person reclaiming "faggot" is qualitatively different from a straight person using it as a slur. Why is it different for visual language? Words are not spoken in a vacuum, nor are images made independent of a world with a multiplicity of competing ideas, values, and cultural crosscurrents.

I do accept your belief that it's possible for a racist to make art divorced from their racist beliefs. Gauguin made plenty of art that had nothing to do with racial difference, so it would be unreasonable for me to accuse those works of perpetuating racism. However, Gauguin also made many works of art which do confront race and which are racist. You asked for a work of art that is glaringly racist. Well I can't provide that work, the racism he perpetuates is more subtle than drawing black people with sloping heads, enormous lips, and spears. I can show you work of his that, independent of what he said his art was about (though knowing that is very, very helpful), compresses disparate cultures into one, erases colonialism and replaces it with a cherry-picked conception of a culture, associates being non-Western with being child-like and naive, and presents women as exemplary of this "uncivilized" state.

In Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), Gauguin depicts two traditionally dressed Tahitian women paying their respects to a Tahitian Madonna and Child. The overlaid Christianity erases the actual Tahitian culture, and the traditional dress erases the reality of French colonization. Additionally, the pose made by the women paying their respects is a quotation of a pose made by figures in a Buddhist Javanese temple frieze (a photograph of which Gauguin kept), conflating the two disparate cultures. That really just scratches the surface of why this painting is racist, independent of Gauguin's beliefs (please excuse the ineloquence with which I wrote that). This isn't even going into the discussion of the Tahitian Mary and the connecting ideas about Eve, original sin, and Eden, or formal characteristics of the work (though you'd actually have to read a bit of Gauguin's writing to say much about that as it pertains to race). It's not the beat-you-over-the-head-with-it kind of racism you get from White Supremacism, but the more passive kind you get from New Age philosophies that talk about Native Americans as if their beliefs and cultures are monolithic and exist only in the past (in fact those kinds of beliefs are in the same tradition as Gauguin's). It may not be glaring, but it's there.
Posted by samktg on February 16, 2012 at 11:25 AM · Report this
samktg 26
@24, Oy vay. No one could seriously dispute Gauguin's importance or originality. It's bullshit to give his ideas a pass, though, just because he lived over a century ago, and because he was nominally more enlightened than his European contemporaries. His work is microcosmic of the colonial program, and his infantilizing beliefs are largely derived from all the racist assumptions of the imperialist culture he lived in. There is no reason he should get a pass while his ideas are alive and well today both inside and outside the art world and the world still feels the effects of colonialism. If we can condemn the more than a century dead American institution of slavery because we can still feel its effects today, then we can also criticize Gauguin. It's not being PC to talk about this stuff; it's a chapter in history that is not yet closed, and we gain nothing by pretending we are disinterested when we are still living with and being affected by this stuff.
Posted by samktg on February 16, 2012 at 11:56 AM · Report this
Incredible 27
I'm interested in how these paintings could look nice on my walls and at the same time assist me in desperately-needed personal financial deleveraging, but I am reminded here that they could also spark any number of raucous debates at cocktail parties, which would occur much more frequently if I was not broke.

I love art.
Posted by Incredible on February 16, 2012 at 12:16 PM · Report this
@Free Lunch: http://www.ricci-art.net/img006/508.jpg

Check out this painting, then consider Manet's Olympia (http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/asse…), then look back to Titian's Venus of Urbino (http://www.historum.com/members/clement-…).

These images look similar on purpose, because each artist was building on the style of the artist who came before. Why then does Gauguin's version lie backside-up on the bed with a simultaneously scared/vulnerable and provocative facial expression? What do you think the artist suggests will happen next in this narrative? You can't imagine that this image is imbued with some of the artist's sexual/cultural desire to dominate the brown-skinned young woman (and that which she represents)?

This is a great article by Jen because she's pulling back some of the curtain that surrounds Gauguin as one of the blockbuster artists that museums often turn to to bring in big audiences. I haven't seen this show yet but like a couple of other commenters I'm now more excited to see it because it sounds like Pam and Chiyo have tried hard to present a blockbuster show that is also a revision of art historical doctrine. So, for those who say that Jen should just appreciate the art without being so concerned about the context, I would say that you can find that kind of interpretation in MANY other places, so go ahead and do that.
Posted by 2162012 on February 16, 2012 at 12:17 PM · Report this
@26 Well I think you and Jen Graves are going way beyond merely not giving Gauguin's ideas a pass and as I said indulging in politically correct moral outrage and histrionics. You are applying 21st century measures of political correctness to a 19th century artist which is just a little ridiculous.

Here's a question: Why is it somehow more 'enormously problematic' to have actually gone to foreign lands and integrated aspects of its culture into your art than to merely steal motifs and styles from artists from exotic lands, like Matisse and Picasso did? Similar romanticizing of the exotic and primitive but considerable less hand-wringing about their racism, apparently because they stayed home.
Posted by Rhizome on February 16, 2012 at 12:55 PM · Report this
samktg 30
@29, In my mind early 20th century Avant Garde Primitivism is just as problematic as late 19th century Primitivism. I think the values we see in 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' and 'Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra' are just as egregious as those we see in 'Manao Tupapao'. By the way, Matisse wasn't an armchair tourist, he did a fair amount of traveling in North Africa.

My apologies if I seem exasperated when discussing this stuff. Maybe it's because whenever it comes up, there is always a chorus of people demanding de-contextualization, or insisting that because it happened a long time ago, the culture could not have been similar enough to ours to pass any judgment. Again, the Primitivist tradition is alive and well, in both art and the wider culture. It is relevant to point out the bullshit until that tradition is dead.
Posted by samktg on February 16, 2012 at 1:51 PM · Report this
samktg: Marrying 13 year olds has been the norm for the vast majority of human history. Nanny moralists like yourself fueled the "infantilization Westerners applied to non-Westerners". Neo-Primitives like Gauguin were heroes for shlepping 13 year olds and should be treasured as such. We should have listened to the late 19th century primitivists and preserved a vast island of uncivilized tribes when we had the chance. Pick any poor, under-educated population today and you will see the same festering tentacles of imperialism disguised as the corporate nanny-state.
Posted by porchedge on February 16, 2012 at 2:01 PM · Report this
samktg 32
Oh, and what is the role of our art institutions when showing something like Gauguin's oeuvre? For the most part they shy away from mentioning the gritty racist/colonialist/misogynist stuff (SAM's approach here is uncommon). Certainly when the 21st century museum displays 19th century racism/colonialism/misogyny without or almost without comment, we can discuss the disturbing ease with which those 19th century views fit into our 21st century world, no? Arguably this is a completely different discussion, though.

@31, Maybe you weren't listening, but by the time Primitivism was in vogue, the "uncivilized" peoples were being "civilized", the old order had been broken. You are also profoundly misunderstanding Primitivism if you think it was about preserving traditional lifestyles and communities. It's aim was more about giving "civilized" Europeans an "authentic" spiritual experience than anything else. And about screwing 13 year olds, for most of history it's been acceptable to treat women like shit, for most of history it's been acceptable to buy human beings, for most of history its been okay to do all sorts of fucked up shit. That doesn't make it okay. Besides, this isn't "most of history". Gauguin is a fin de si├Ęcle artist. At this point, art has had a modern sensibility for 30 years (since Manet). At this point, Western Europe as a whole is turning into Modern Western Europe. We have more in common with this time period than with "most of history" which is fucking big.

And riiiiight, opinions like 'people are entitled to self-determination and self-governance', or 'people should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of skin color or gender', totally what fueled Imperialism.
Posted by samktg on February 16, 2012 at 2:35 PM · Report this
I'll hold off on my criticisms of the man until I go to the show. One Anthony Bourdain episode just isn't enough information to make an informed decision.
Posted by presently out on February 16, 2012 at 3:18 PM · Report this
@32 What fuels the Imperialistic tendency is the delusion that YOU are the pinnacle of all progress and social evolution. You [establishment centrists] have a hyper-sensitive radar that identifies any group that looks different from your own, and directs resources toward erasing the deviant groups identity and replacing it with your own. Racists, sexists and rednecks should be preserved and admired as a hedge against the advancing mono-culture [your great grandchildren will thank you] Your near pathological drive to "fix" people/culture is akin to the coin-slot added to the Tamatea box; in that your passively inviting the exploitation of the other.
Posted by porchedge on February 16, 2012 at 6:35 PM · Report this
Jen has the courage to examine, and call out, the messy underbelly of Gauguin's work. In part, that's because the museum has the courage to place Gauguin's work physically and metaphysically in the same space, side by side, with Polynesian art of the same period.

We can go to the exhibit ourselves. We can absorb and feel for ourselves the contrast between the true culture of Polynesia at that time, and the lens through which Gauguin saw it.

Think about it. Could we possibly speak of white-face minstrel shows with the same neutrality that some people here are insisting we use about Gauguin? Art cannot be divorced from its context.

To the extent that Gauguin's view of Polynesia is better known than the view of the Polynesians themselves, Jen is doing absolutely the right thing to address the issue. This world has had enough of white men speaking for, and representing, everyone else.

Brava, Jen! Keep writing. Keep the fires burning under the feet of us white folk. :-)
Posted by Louisep on February 16, 2012 at 8:27 PM · Report this
samktg 36
@34, Wow, those are quite the assumptions you've made about me, derived from a handful of comments on art history and theory.

I'm curious, how does a live-and-let live belief system with an emphasis on tolerance, egalitarianism, altruism, and self-determination lead to a homogenized monoculture? And tell me, what does discrimination based on gender and race add to society that justifies both its preservation and admiration?
Posted by samktg on February 16, 2012 at 8:29 PM · Report this
samktg: Please take a deep breath and get over yourself. Please, for the children.
Posted by JR3 on February 17, 2012 at 8:51 AM · Report this
"Keep the fires burning under the feet of us white folk"

Yes #35, we must continually engage in an cleansing orgy of self-hatred for the fact that our ancestors were the most successful at doing what every other people on the face of the earth all through history sought to do: expand their territory and control more resources. We're just so very evil for doing that! Rotten, evil white men - inventing ships and guns and navigation and thus gaining an advantage for us, their descendants, that any other people in the world would have loved to have had.

We have to continue to work at sidelining, demonizing, and demoralizing ourselves (since these other groups can't seem to get their acts together enough to do it to us themselves) so that hopefully the wonderful, enriching "other" will maybe someday forgive us and like us again. Because we so desperately want to be liked by the rest of the world!

We should never miss an opportunity - including looking at art - to turn it into a preaching lesson on "values". See, everything is about inculcating our values, and erasing the values of those successful white men who built a prosperous, democratic world for us. Only when those white men have been thoroughly vilified in the minds of their great-great grandchildren can we begin to ease up.
Posted by MN_Mark on February 17, 2012 at 9:31 AM · Report this
"Keep the fires burning under the feet of us white folk"

Yes #35, we must continually engage in an cleansing orgy of self-hatred for the fact that our ancestors were the most successful at doing what every other people on the face of the earth all through history sought to do: expand their territory and control more resources. We're just so very evil for doing that! Rotten, evil white men - inventing ships and guns and navigation and thus gaining an advantage for us, their descendants, that any other people in the world would have loved to have had.

We have to continue to work at sidelining, demonizing, and demoralizing ourselves (since these other groups can't seem to get their acts together enough to do it to us themselves) so that hopefully the wonderful, enriching "other" will maybe someday forgive us and like us again. Because we so desperately want to be liked by the rest of the world!

We should never miss an opportunity - including looking at art - to turn it into a preaching lesson on "values". See, everything is about inculcating our values, and erasing the values of those successful white men who built a prosperous, democratic world for us. Only when those white men have been thoroughly vilified in the minds of their great-great grandchildren can we begin to ease up.
Posted by MN_Mark on February 17, 2012 at 9:33 AM · Report this
To quote another writer on Ms. Graves ramblings:

"I wonder if the late twentieth century will be seen as dominated by insufferably self-centered, dull and predictable white feminists."

In the interest of consistency, what would Ms. Graves think of Foucault, that patron saint of post-modernism? He had aids.
Posted by Ficino on February 17, 2012 at 10:33 AM · Report this
@36: Ok, let's banish the degenerate, uncivilized protagonist from contemporary storytelling. All your left with is the soothing smooth jazz wafting through the atmosphere of shopping malls. Until our biology merges with technology and humanness becomes obsolete you're always going to have the exact same level of anger, fighting and hate present in society. We should drop-out of this circular firing squad; pull back the troops and let novelty increase exponentially. The growing adherence to non-radical establishment centrism passively invites the homogenized monoculture.
Posted by porchedge on February 17, 2012 at 11:30 AM · Report this

You are, like most white people -- which I think it's safe to assume you are -- thinking that the issue is what our ancestors did. Of course we can't change the past.

The issue is what white people do in the here and now. And that's what we *can* do something about.

Most white people (heck, most *people*) don't realize that they make assumptions about people based on their race, or their gender, or their age, or their class. They have no life experience of being a minority. Most white people don't realize that most other people assume they are more capable, more deserving of a promotion, more intelligent, more qualified for a job, etc., simply because they are white!

Most of us are not consciously trying to get the advantage that we get. But we get it anyway.

What we have to continually engage in is a cleansing examination of ourselves, our privilege, and our race.

I used to feel exactly the same way you do. Then I fell in love with and married a black man. After all the experiences I've had being the only white person pre-match everywhere we go when we're visiting his family -- I know what I'm saying is true.
Posted by Louisep on February 17, 2012 at 12:45 PM · Report this
"To quote another writer on Ms. Graves ramblings..."

To quote a commenter on Ann Althouse's blog, you mean.

I'll never understand conservatives. Tell the truth about somebody and everybody loses their shit.

Do porchedge, TortoiseTurtle, northwest mystic, MN_Mark, or Ficino know the first thing about the islands in the South Pacific? Or Gaugin? Or even care one way or another? All I can see is a lot of whining about a review that takes history seriously, and treats art as having real moral content.
Posted by StPaulite on February 17, 2012 at 1:20 PM · Report this
"pre-match" = "pretty much"

Damn dictation software.
Posted by Louisep on February 17, 2012 at 5:28 PM · Report this
are you seriously suggesting that YOU are not "whiny and jaw-droppingly self-centered"?
haha! you must be kidding.
Posted by phuckyouseattledouchebags on February 17, 2012 at 6:50 PM · Report this
Fuck yea Jen Graves, fuck yea samktg. I'm in love with what you guys are doing. Don't pay any mind to the Privilege Denying Trolls on here
Posted by lovefromiowa on February 17, 2012 at 7:20 PM · Report this
sparkydive 47
The only thing that could make all these ridiculously opinionated, frequently clueless comments worse would be if the article was about professional sports. Or holistic medicine.
Posted by sparkydive on February 17, 2012 at 7:37 PM · Report this
@43 No conservative here but I am deeply suspicious if not hostile to anyone going on about the 'moral content' of art. For one thing what do, presumably atheist or at least agnostic, liberals/feminists mean when they fulminate about morality? It doesn't occur to them in the least how much they sound like right-wing bible thumpers? I'm going to presume that most of them do not believe there is some metaphysical law called morality.

I think there is a fair amount of evidence that for an artist, spending an inordinate amount of time agonizing over the 'morality' of your art is a pretty good formula for producing boring, mono-dimensional, didactic crap.

Actually I am getting more peeved by the tone of this review as this discussion goes on. What is the reverse term for anachronistic? Whatever it is that is what is going on here. If anything, enthusiasts for the 'primitive' and those who were rebels against western civilization, like Gauguin for instance, were precursors to those (generally leftists) today who are advocates for the oppressed multitudes of the developing world. Who is it that is being willfully ignorant of history here?
Posted by Rhizome on February 17, 2012 at 9:27 PM · Report this
As someone who has visited and lived in Polynesia and has written several books of poetry and prose and published essays concerning Tahiti and her islands (and Rapa Nui), I feel compelled to say that Ms. Graves' take on Gauguin is not accurate in its details and its attempts to make him a villain in terms of his life in Tahiti and later on Hiva Oa, where he died and is buried in the same cemetary as Jacques Brel. I am also taken aback at her comments on Polynesians, especially her final comment; i.e. that they were trying to escape the islands, which is blatently not true. It would take an entire monograph to deconstruct and refute what Ms. Graves has so contentiously written, but perhaps this poem of Gonzalo Rojas, translated by Will Rowe, might suffice.....

The Academics

They prostitute everything,
by wasting time in circumlocution.
They explain it all, they monologue
like well-oiled machines,
and slobber over everything with metaphysical drivel

I'd like to see them in the southern ocean
on a night of real wind, with their heads
cold cast, smelling
the vast solitude of the world
without moon,
without possible explanation

smoking in the terror of abandonment.
Posted by Bill Sherman on February 17, 2012 at 10:12 PM · Report this
As someone who has visited and lived in Polynesia and has published several books of poetry and prose, and many essays about Tahiti and her islands (and Rapa Nui), I feel compelled to say that Ms. Graves' quite contentious take on Gauguin is simply inaccurate in its delineation of his life in Tahiti and later on Hiva Oa where he died, and where he is buried in the same cemetary as Jacques Brel. It would take an extended piece to deconstruct and refute Ms. Graves's rant about the paintings themselves, and about the people of Polynesia, especially her final comment, blatently untrue, that Polynesians wanted to escape their beautiful islands. Perhaps this poem by Gonzalo Rojas, translated by Will Rowe, might suffice:

The Academics

They prostitute everything,
by wasting energy in circumlocution.
They explain it all, they monologue
like well-oiled machines,
and slobber over everything with metaphysical drivel.

I'd like to see them in the southern ocean
on a night of real wind, with their heads
cold cast, smelling
the vast solitude of the world
without moon,
without possible explanation

smoking in the terror of abandonment.
Posted by Bill Sherman on February 17, 2012 at 10:31 PM · Report this
samktg 51
@48, I suspect 'morals' is used there synonymously with 'ethics'.

I rather think you're right when you say that an artist that agonizes over the 'morality' of their work is going to generally produce very boring art. To play devil's advocate, though, a lot of great, important art was produced with a moral, didactic agenda.

Also, no one accused you of willful ignorance of history; you're completely right when you say that enthusiasts of the 'Primitive' were the precursors of those, generally, left-wing advocates. Hell, many of them were involved with the left-wing politics of the time, and were even nascently anti-colonial. This doesn't somehow nullify the problems with Gauguin and other Primitivists, though. It really doesn't hurt to acknowledge that many of the views we hold today evolved from other, rather unsavory forms, put forth by rather unsavory (if well meaning) people. Gauguin certainly meant well, he did take stands that got him in trouble with French colonial authorities, but for all the reasons that have been mentioned already, he is problematic.
Posted by samktg on February 17, 2012 at 11:52 PM · Report this
@48: He's not problematic; he's flawlessly key to the plot. That is of course assuming that you consider his "life" story to be inseparable from his product.
Posted by porchedge on February 18, 2012 at 11:47 AM · Report this
@Bill Sherman: The last sentence does not say what you think it does (or even close).
Posted by Jen Graves on February 20, 2012 at 1:39 PM · Report this
What about his love of prostitutes? and his drug addiction? those traits are considered OK today? He is just a bad boy for different reasons in our times? Gauguin still SCANDALOUS after all these years --- Hee Hee....and it still sells!
Posted by Retro and Obvious on February 20, 2012 at 4:43 PM · Report this
slade 55
The lovely shell of prejudist that let's us escape the ignorance of humans.
So huge an ignorance we are forced into the denial
Yes even prejudice is a shelter from human ignorance as a whole

He sounds like a starving artist from Chicago, a cover for every form of deeply disturbed deviate on the face of thee earth Art is a therapy shelter that we are compeled to judge from every value and perspective until we the artist must scream in vengeance "Shut up bayatch".
The reflection is a unique flavor and our tasted buds are slaves to familiarity.
Posted by slade http://www.youtube.com/user/guppygator on February 22, 2012 at 7:40 AM · Report this
slade 56

Mmmmmm! lick lick lick! Yummy!
Posted by slade http://www.youtube.com/user/guppygator on February 22, 2012 at 7:43 AM · Report this
The author is correct to mention some biographical foibles, and the syphilis / child bride details are certainly skeevy antidotes to the romantic notion of the Western genius.

However, the central theme of infection in this review goes too far. Gauguin wasn't like his contemporaries Leopold II in the Congo, or even Roosevelt in the Philippines. He adopted a new community, and lived by their laws.

I certainly would question a retrospective of Jackson Pollock's work that focused overly on his alcoholism and tried him posthumously for manslaughter in the drunk driving death of Edith Metzger. His work still warrants our admiration for the pioneering spirit he wielded, and so does Gauguin's.
Posted by druiddude on February 22, 2012 at 9:27 AM · Report this
@ 46 you said it for me. to the other trolls on here who basically say you are whiny what are you so uncomfortable with? What are you exposed to that you have to defer to saying "please don't raise that topic", or "please be quiet"? Don't enter the conversation then suggest others to be quiet.
Posted by socrates1974 on February 22, 2012 at 12:16 PM · Report this
Where is her scathing analysis about the giant Warhol screen print of Mao Zedong (responsible for more deaths than Hitler) on the 3rd floor? Where is your protest about the upcoming King Tut exhibit at the Pacific Science Center because of the extensive use of slavery in ancient Egypt? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if Gauguin was anything other than a white guy that you would have nothing negative to say about the man.
Posted by zag83 on February 22, 2012 at 2:27 PM · Report this
So we consider Gauguin a bad person--with ample reason. I think his art very good, however, as well as highly original and extraordinarily influential, and am sure that it requires more sympathy than Graves can muster here to elucidate its positive qualities. There's a similar dilemma with Picasso, arguably, and Wagner, certainly: extremely influential art of troubling ideological content made by disagreeable men (putting this last point politely).

But it requires a pronounced presentist purism--despite all the adulatory talk of hybrids--to see this influence as simply pernicious. Progress is piecemeal, and however objectionable Gauguin's specific actions and general tone may be to contemporary ears, his rejection of the west and celebration of the "primitive" (which is how he and his contemporaries construed the matter--to drop the word is to be ahistorical) was a major move in a history leading to the more enlightened Western attitudes vis-a-vis the rest of the world of our own time, of which Graves' review is such a shrill example.

"These issues are not historical. They are contemporary." No, exactly not. The life of a painter who died in 1903, when cultural attitudes were a world away from those of our own time, requires truly historical criticism in order to be fully and fairly understood. In contrast, Graves condemns with a reductive caricature.

Again, my objection is not to the points made in criticism of Gauguin's biography. Rather I object to the imbalanced nature of this review: all but ignoring the paintings to instead offer up a facile condemnation, with a prurient obsession with Gauguin's affairs and a cliched, anachronistic post-colonial critique of a still colonial time. And all this to the philistine end of encouraging a dismissive attitude about a major artist. Congrats, this requires "profound" ideological skill.

Graves writes, "Where Gauguin found messy impurities, other artists (and curators, and historians) have found richer options, options that challenge the contemporary viewer." Context reveals that the alternatives Graves is referring to are at work right now, and that by "challenging" she really means "agree with." I strongly suspect Raymond Boisjoly will not be eliciting such heated discussion 109 years after his death! Needless to say, providing alternatives from Gauguin's own time would make Graves's argument stronger.

About the paintings, we read that they combine "sheer gall and fruity beauty," that they are "candy-colored", that "he is gawking with a mixture of pity and desire; the women are posed as melancholics."

The formal descriptions strike me as tone-deaf and, like the entire review, intentionally demeaning. I can guess what "sheer gall" is supposed to mean from the rest of the review, but "fruity beauty" and "candy-colored" are simply a cliched and vulgar way of characterizing Gauguin's revolutionary use of color. And there is no suggestion of his flattening of form and simplification of design (except implicitly in the mention of textiles and Matisse) in pursuit of expressive intensity and symbolical analogues.

The last point, describing the illustrational content, demonstrates Graves' ideological prejudice. There is nothing wrong with art that mixes pity and desire, or that depicts women as melancholics. But Graves is entirely unsympathetic, and describes Gauguin as "gawking"--an attitude I've never seen in a Gauguin painting.

To make "what would Gauguin not do?" into a mantra may make for a fair contemporary moral formula, but at the expense of flattening cultural history and shying away from quite good painting.
Posted by thoughtsfromberlin.tumblr.com on February 23, 2012 at 2:30 AM · Report this
Bravo, Berlin! The most ausgezeichnet comment I've seen this year.
Posted by druiddude on February 23, 2012 at 7:29 AM · Report this
re: Jen Graves @53 in response to my post: "...is the real jungle trampled on people trying to escape." ok, what then is the intent of that final sentence?
Posted by Bill Sherman on February 23, 2012 at 3:56 PM · Report this
@4 First: Please recall any sustained civilization at any time period any where on the planet earth that wasn't dominated the violent egoism of humans? You seem to be in inferring that violent egoism is the sole purview and result of European men. Which is patently false. Humans are violent egoistic creatures.

We are only just now getting this fact under some sort of loose control. Barely.

Second: I too believe historical context of art is extremely important to deconstruct. Deconstructing though is not judging or moralizing. And that's what you and Jen are indulging in a little heavily here.

There does come a point where we cease to fully appreciate context and start filtering art through the blatant egoism of our own guilt.

Gauguin, despite his many character flaws, was a product of his time AND was far more enlightened than 90% of his fellows in many important ways. He deserves credit for THAT as well. Or no? Therefore all white men pre-1968 (choose your own date) have to carry around the albatross of the crimes of their place in history.... FOREVER?

When you say "problematic" what does that mean? A moral problem? Moral "problems are purely subjective. The only moral problems that matter are problem that cause actual provable physical harms. Are you claiming that this work causes an actual harm? What harm would that be?

Gauguin causes harm, now, because he's not appropriately labeled as.... what? Some sort of historical cultural art War-Criminal?

Or is it some other type of moral problem that cuases another sort of intangible harm? If that's it... it doesn't matter. that's the kind of moralizing based in point-of-view, belief, and ideology. And best left to religion and busy body church ladies.

The onus is on you to PROVE there is a "problem (a harm)" beyond just some vague need to moralize. And then define what that problem means.

And I will then be all ears as to whet your solutions to this so-called problem will be.
Posted by tkc on February 23, 2012 at 5:51 PM · Report this
I agree with some of what she says (and I teach it to my students) but I think Jen Graves goes a bit too far. I always try to balance what these artists have achieved in art history with the realities of their lives in a way that shows them as visionary, but fallible (and sometimes just plain wrong). I think SAM's treatment of Gauguin's work is commendable and I wish more museums would address the colonialism of Western art history in this way. But Jen Graves seems to be reveling in creating an image of Gauguin as a vile, putrid, racist, lecherous pedophile. One wonders what she would make of Schiele? Nolde? Marinetti and the Futurists? Would their art only serve as a visual pathway to a evisceration of their humanity? All humans are both good and bad. Some are better or worse than others. The basic facts of these artist's lives MUST be discussed, openly and honestly. But I think there is a way to balance those discussions with the positive power and legacy of their artwork.
Regardless of how I feel about the opinions expressed in this exhibition review, I fully support passionate and interesting conversations about art and I'm glad to see this article creating those conversations.
Posted by Me123 on February 24, 2012 at 11:10 AM · Report this
re: jen graves @53 again: if your unclearly written sentence at the end of your review means to imply Gauguin was "trampling" on people, that is just not true. Of course the French authorities, and the missionaries, hated him, but not the people.
Posted by Bill Sherman on February 25, 2012 at 5:53 PM · Report this
Methinks the author of this article is overly impressed with herself and her supposed knowledge of Gauguin. It must be remembered that Gauguin is a man of his era, and while one might not like what that means in terms of how he lived his life, there is much to admire in his portrayal of the death of a culture, the beauty of the people and their surroundings, and the use of wonderfully bold colors.

Reviewing an exhibition can be done tastefully and respectfully. Resorting to sensationalism and negativity is a reflection on the shortcomings of the author.
Posted by Cherie L. on April 7, 2012 at 12:31 PM · Report this
Thanks all...and to Gauguin for starting this ball rolling. I felt the subjects of his island paintings were themselves dreaming or musing about the pre-colonial time,not just the artist. Many looked ...uncomfortable or distracted from present time...and it may have been this inability to fit in to the changes and restrictions of colonial rule that the artist felt akin to. Art can sometimes be about emotion connections rather than ideas.....Gauguin was a journalist as well, judge his ideas there.....but his paintings...come on now.
Posted by ColumbiaCityJoe on April 24, 2012 at 6:39 AM · Report this

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