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.