Writer Heather Higgins talks about the complicated legacy of painter Paul Guaguin.
The Monster and the Painter: The Case of Paul Gauguin
Content warning: Pedophilia, abuse
If you walk through the hallowed halls of the impressionism wing at the Art Institute of Chicago — past the famed Monet water lilies and that one painting from Ferris Bueller — you will come across a room filled with the artwork of famed French artist Paul Gauguin
Gauguin is well known for his involvement in the symbolist and expressionist movements. His use of color is brilliant — vibrant tones of pink and green pop out from the most unexpected places. His landscapes are portals that invite the viewer to fall into them and explore.
One of his most significant impacts was spearheading the problematic primitivist movement, which influenced artists like Matisse and Picasso to appropriate imagery from cultures they considered primitive and unsophisticated.
In 1891, at the age of 43 and in what can only be described as one hell of a midlife crisis, Gauguin left his wife and five children in Europe and headed for Tahiti, which was under French colonial rule, according to Ruud Welten’s “Paul Gauguin and the Complexity of the Primitivist Gaze.”
“I am leaving in order to have peace and quiet, to be rid of the influence of civilization,” Gauguin said in an interview for “L’Écho de Paris” in 1891. “I only want to do simple, very simple art, and to be able to do that, I have to immerse myself in virgin nature, see no one but savages, live their life.”
There is a placard in the gallery entitled “Mythologizing Tahiti.” It describes his disappointment at finding a country already deeply altered by the pressures of colonialism, capitalism and the forceful destruction of indigenous practices.
“It prompted him to invent — through paintings, sculptures, prints, and writings — a version of Tahiti that catered to his sexual fantasies about native women and girls,” the placard reads.
The question remains in my head, “Why do these images deserve to be displayed?”
When perusing the room dedicated to Gauguin’s work, between the half-naked women and tropical landscapes, you’ll come across a painting of what appears to be a young girl with round cheeks. She sits stoically, wearing a blue and white striped nightgown. Her hair is adorned with flowers, fresh fruits lay beside her and she holds a light pink fan. The title of this piece is “Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana)” from 1893.
Teha’amana was a native Tahitian who was 13 when the girl’s mother offered her to him as a bride, according to Gauguin in his book “Noa Noa,” which mythologizes his time in Tahiti.
The painting’s description at the Art Institute states that the ripe mango beside her alludes to fertility — a skin crawling allusion when you remember that Gauguin had at least two children in Tahiti by the girls he “married,” according to fine art auction house Sotheby’s.
The painting’s placard describes Gauguin’s behavior towards young girls as predatory. It also explains how Gauguin appropriated symbols from various cultures “to build a generic sense of foreignness and mystery, transforming Tehamana into the embodiment of his own desire.”
There is a kind of slime that covers me whenever I walk through that exhibit, a stench of moral discomfort. It feels wrong to even look upon these images of eroticised, potentially underage women.
I’m standing in the gray-walled gallery dedicated to Gauguin’s work. It’s a rainy Sunday and the gallery is packed with people, most of them staring at the works in silent contemplation. One girl turns to her friend and speaks through an uncomfortable laugh.
In an email to The Phoenix, a spokesperson for the Art Institute wrote that curatorial departments at the Art Institute actively conduct thorough reviews of all content, including wall labels, to ensure they are creating “an inclusive, accessible, and socially relevant visitor experience.”
“Several years ago, as part of this ongoing assessment, the department rewrote wall labels for works by Gauguin to add additional context and more accurately describe his biography,” the spokesperson wrote. “Among other changes, these edits eliminated phrasing that felt outdated and more clearly addressed how some of his relationships are understood today as predatory.”
I do believe the conversations about the true brutalization of colonization that are inspired by these placards can be beneficial. But I don’t want to fall into the trap of having further discussions stymied by that concession. We can’t allow such institutions to use the bandage of retrospective criticism to avoid larger issues about the merit of exhibiting such works.
Let’s lay out the facts. In the Art Institute right now, there is an image of an underage girl that a pedophilic artist “married,” abused and explicitly depicts as “an embodiment of his desire.”
Is Gauguin’s contribution to artistic style really enough to justify his continued display in such a respected and defining cultural institution?
I wonder if the image of Tehamana was a photograph of a girl from the Midwest taken in the past decade, would we be collectively more appalled? Do we allow the imposed foreignness — which Gauguin went out of his way to exaggerate — and the separation of time to numb our outrage to such indignity?
We don’t have to completely expunge him from the historical record, there are lessons to be learned here about the colonial legacies of modern art. Though, let’s be real — are erotic paintings of young girls really the only way we can think of to engage in such conversations?
I’m not saying all artists displayed in a museum must be totally pure of mind, heart and intention. If we were to remove all artists that had regressive views on issues like race and gender, many of the walls in the impressionist wing would be blank.
Though the particular factor in this case is that it’s seemingly impossible to extricate these ideas from the artwork itself.
“Mahana no atua (Day of the God)” from 1894 is a colorful landscape populated with women. The three central figures are nude, two of them lay in the fetal position, and a deity that Gauguin seems to have invented watches over the scene. This whole image is a figment of Gauguin’s imagination, as he only painted it after returning to Europe.
This painting is a bizarre fantasy that represents — at least in my mind — the infantilizing and sexualizing attitudes held by Europeans, which allowed for the expansion of colonial violence.
So seeing this painting appear on a mug for sale for $13.95 in the Art Institute’s online shop certainly feels unsettling.
To me the very existence of this product is revealing of the inherent contradictions in the Art Institute’s relationship to these works. They point to the fact that Gauguin capitalized off these depictions of indigenous women, while simultaneously profiting off of those very same images.
These women and girls, over 100 years later, are still unable to escape this erotic and exotifying representation — their bodies continue to be used and defined by Gauguin. Will they ever get to rest?
Feature image by Aidan Cahill / The Phoenix