How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

“How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist?”

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Reader question: “How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist? How can we look past the artist and appreciate the art? Should we?”

That’s a great question! This is something that a lot of people struggle with. It’s sometimes hard to admit that beautiful and famous art can also be based on racist and sexist attitudes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Gauguin, he was a French Post-Impressionist/Symbolist artist who famously moved to Tahiti in the late 19th century and painted the people (more specifically, the women) that he met there.

Gauguin first moved to Tahiti in 1891, after painting in the French countryside and spending several weeks with Van Gogh in Arles. He was tired of Western civilization and wanted a more primitive and natural lifestyle. Before he left he wrote, “I judge that my art…is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it for my own pleasure in its primitive and savage state.” (Tahiti was, at the time, already pretty Westernized so I don’t know if he really got what he wanted.) He eventually settled a little away from the capital, where he set up his studio in a hut.

Art historians have discovered that Gauguin lied to people back in France about the kind of lifestyle he led in Tahiti. He exaggerated how exotic Tahiti was, and how erotic his adventures were there. He wrote a book about his life in Tahiti called ‘Noa Noa’, where he portrayed Tahiti as an erotic idyll. It’s been revealed as misleading – some of it, for example, was lifted from a Dutch ethnographer’s accounts from the 1830s.

The Seed of the Areois (1892)

The Seed of the Areois (1892)

He also took several very young brides (aged about 13 – 14) and infected local women with syphilis, which he most likely died of. He called his hut “La Maison du Jouir” (“The House of Orgasm”).

Oh, and did I mention that he verbally, emotionally and probably physically abused his first wife? She was Danish and her name was Mette Gad. They had five children together, all of whom he left behind when he started traveling around the countryside in the 1880s.

So Gauguin was not a great person. He exploited Tahiti and its people to sell his paintings back in Paris and create an image of himself as an erotic adventurer; he took on young Tahitian girls as his wives; and he abused his first wife.

Barbaric Tales (1902)

Barbaric Tales (1902)

But despite all of that, Paul Gauguin is one of the most famous and admired artists in art history, and millions of people think his work is amongst the most beautiful in the world. (Personally I think his work is gorgeous.) I once had an argument with someone who felt that we should not take the social context of Gauguin’s work into consideration and just appreciate the aesthetic beauty of his art on its own. I disagreed.

An important part of art history for me has always been how the artist’s cultural context affected the work and how our own cultural context affects our understanding of it. We can say that a work is beautiful, but it’s even more interesting to try and formulate why it’s beautiful. That’s why I want to remember who Gauguin was when I look at his work – otherwise I can’t ask what it meant to him, what it meant to his contemporary audience, or even what it means to us now.

Paul_Gauguin_-_D'ou_venons-nous

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

Take, for example, Gauguin’s famous painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? The painting is usually read as a philosophical reflection on the nature of life. From right to left it’s a progression through the typical life stages: the women with the baby to the right represent the beginning of life, the figures in the middle represent adulthood, and the very left shows an old woman approaching death. The strong colours and thick brushstrokes are expressionistic in that they sacrifice realism in favour of a strong sense of emotion. It’s a highly personal painting, as Gauguin painted it while mourning the death of his daughter.

However, knowing what Gauguin’s attitudes were towards Tahiti and its inhabitants, the painting can also be seen as primitivist, and fetishizing.

Primitivist art began appearing in the late 19th century. This art was created by Westerners who drew inspiration from non-Western (or “primitive”) art to experiment with colours, perspective, shapes and patterns. Gauguin is a Primitivist artist. In this painting, using Tahiti as a setting lets his art connect with what he saw as a more exotic and primitive culture. His perspective is flattened, his colours are clear and bright, and the figures are slightly distorted. There’s also the blue statue in the back of the image. In Primitivist art, artists often borrowed imagery from religious artworks of other cultures to add an element of mysticism, while also often misrepresenting them.

In a lot of Western art depicting non-Western cultures, fetishisation (turning something into an object of sexual desire) is also common.  There’s a long history of fetishising women in art history – showing nude women in poses that invite the viewer to gaze upon them – but here the figures’ culture adds another dimension to their fetishisation. They become intriguing and mysterious, emphasised by the three women on the right and the way that they are both hidden and exposed to the viewer. Taken together with Gauguin’s life and his writing, we can see that the seemingly exotic, casual sexuality of the Tahitians is an important part of his work.

And you can see these things – primitivisation and fetishisation – in a lot of Gauguin’s art from Tahiti.

Annah the Javanese (The Child-woman Judith Is Not Yet Breached) (1893/94)

Annah the Javanese (The Child-woman Judith Is Not Yet Breached) (1893/94)

So we’ve established that much of Gauguin’s work is racist and sexist. But you also think it’s beautiful and you respond to it in a really positive way. What do you do? Well, you have two options, and I honestly think that either option is perfectly valid.

  1. You can decide that it you just don’t want to support an artist and artistic legacy that goes so much against your own values.
  2. You can decide that you still love and appreciate Gauguin’s art, based on what you see and value in it, and also be aware of the history of the actual paintings.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can love something and still be critical of it. That’s totally okay. And I also think that things like racism and sexism are valid reasons for not liking a work of art. Everyone has different ideas on what makes an artwork beautiful, and it’s really up to us to decide.

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3 Comments

  1. Susanna

    Rarely do single actions or characteristics make the total human. George Washington refused to become king and peacefully let go of the presidency and handed it to the man duly elected, setting a long standing political culture of peaceful transition in US government. Yet Washington was also a slave owner, arguably the most despicable thing a human can perpetuate upon another human being. We need to look at these figures as a whole and at their contributions individually to fully understand the impact to the world.

  2. Philip Emerson

    Its a curious relationship that the west has had with the arts of the rest of the world, dismissing them as primitive while simultaneously ripping them off. Google is a good place to see how blind we still are. Try to find Latino artists, or Chinese, or Indonesian, etc. There are very few hits, and those one can find most often mimic western fashions. One would think they are otherwise artless. I started using a Spanish language search engine and suddenly found lots of Latino art… I don’t see Gauguin’s work as racist or sexist, although I’ll happily accept that his European audience did. In the figures he presents I see their humanity, strength and honesty.

  3. Philip Emerson

    If I may. In respect to the other complaints… In 1880 the age of consent in France was 13, while in the US the age of consent in 37 states was 10. Surprisingly, polygamy is still legal in 58 countries and is treated as a misdemeanor in 8 US states… Gauguin chose what we we now call “going Native”. Those who do this are most often derided, but are sometimes lionized. The hit US films Dances with Wolves and Avatar both hinged on on this.

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