Since the beginning of October 2019, the National Gallery is holding an exhibition on French artist Paul Gauguin. Reviews on the exhibition have been – for the most part – excellent: praises on the quality of the paintings on show, praises on the set-up and organisation of the exhibition, etc. One hiccup: the artist himself. How come? It may seem counterintuitive but there is a logical explanation.
During his lifetime – and after –, Paul Gauguin was disliked, hated even. Why you ask? Gauguin was a notoriously egocentric person, who represented himself as Christ, abandoned his wife and family to live in French Polynesia where he had sexual relationships with – and even married – underaged girls. Moreover, whether in Pont-Aven (Brittany, France) where he resided for a number of years, or in the Marquesas Islands, he used the term ‘savages’ to designate these peoples. This scandalous life and behaviour shocked his contemporaries as much as it shocks audiences today. From there sparks the controversy: is it still acceptable in this day and age to curate exhibitions on artists with such a reprehensible reputation?
I would caution anyone not to overinterpret his work, or any artists’ work for that matter. The meaning behind some creations are as clear as spring water: Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) deals with the scandal of the wreck of the Medusa in 1816; Picasso’s Guernica (1937) depicts the town of Guernica’s bombing in April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War; U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983) is about the 1972 Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland; Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) relates the rescue of 1,200 Polish Jews by Oskar Schindler during WWII. These are just a few examples that comes to mind. Their meaning and aim are unequivocal.
For other works, the message is not as evident. Here enters interpretation and its big sister, namely, overinterpretation. To me, overinterpretation is like falling down a cliff after having been repeatedly warned by “attention danger” signs on the road. When I was in sixth form, I recollect quite clearly how much I HATED when our teacher asked us to analyse, almost word by word, figure of styles by figure of styles, the excerpt of a text or the chapter of a book we were reading. Why?! Why would you strip a piece of literature or poetry of all its essence?! Once again, do not get me wrong, I like to understand the general meaning and the different layers a song, book, film or artwork has. But from there to meticulously analyse it and perhaps ending up with an interpretation that you attribute to the artist, rightly or wrongly, is rather far-fetched. What I mean by this is, it is perfectly normal to have an opinion on a work of art, film, piece of music, etc. It is the result of our human emotions, knowledge and experiences. Reading too much into the details is where the dangers lie I reckon.
Art, whether it is writing, painting, songwriting and so on, is a medium through which an artist expresses him/herself. The end piece may draw on personal experiences, good or bad, may try to denounce or relate an event or an injustice, may try to change the audience’s point of view on a subject, change the mentalities, urge an evolution… The list is endless. The message of this finished work may sometimes be limpid, sometimes the message is hidden. The interpretation an artist has of this piece may completely differ from yours and mine. For example, although I know of Gauguin’s background and way of life, I do not interpret his portraits of young girls as a reflection of his sickening inclination towards them or as a reflection of ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ people and culture versus Western civilisation and colonisation. My point of view tends towards the artist’s will to depict native tribes and their culture which were – almost – preserved from the influences of the Western world, or so it was thought [Native peoples had been massively converted to monotheism religions by Westerners since the end of the 15th century, forcing the autochthones to renounce their gods and beliefs. The same goes for their languages and clothing]. Perhaps I am right. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you have a different opinion and perhaps Gauguin would laugh at my interpretation and say these portraits are purely and simply a representation of his intimate relationships with teenage girls, of his supremacy as a white man to enjoy the freedom he had over and on ‘savages’, the paintings being some kind of trophies of his conquests.
The solution, then?
The topic at hand is somewhat complicated and delicate, I agree with that. Gauguin’s behaviour with young girls and women in French Polynesia is utterly and irrevocably despicable. On the other hand, he is also one of the fathers of Modernism in art, the founder of an artistic movement called the Art Primitif or Primitive Art – although the word ‘primitive’ is also derogatory in my opinion. Should we sweep his shameful behaviour under the carpet on the grounds of his artistic achievements and his heritage? Absolutely not. Should we avoid curating exhibitions on Gauguin? Absolutely not.
What if you were told that the master of claro obscuro Caravaggio was an alleged murderer? Would you avoid going to an exhibition of his works? What if you were told Degas and Renoir were anti-Semite, Degas to such an extent his views on the Jewish community alienated him all his friends? There is an exhibition on Degas at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris until January 2020. Would you still go? And the list goes on and on: Writer Louis Ferdinand Celine was a notorious anti-Semite. He also wrote Journey to the End of the Night, a semi-autobiographic novel of his experience in the trenches during WWI which inspired and influenced many writers in the decades that followed; Cézanne and Rodin were both anti-Dreyfusard which means that when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of high treason in 1894 (he was Jewish), they believed he was guilty. Cézanne’s opinion on the case did not prevent his great friend Zola, one of Dreyfus’s fiery defender, to admire his art.
What is the solution then? I would be tempted to answer: what if we followed Zola’s example? He most probably condemned his friend’s opinion on the Dreyfus case. He did not condemn his art. Condemn Gauguin’s relationships with underaged girls. Condemn his egotistic nature. Condemn his racism. Do not condemn his work and his artistic heritage. Education on the subject is essential and that is exactly what the National Gallery did. It is clearly stated on some of the labels that the artist had sexual relationships with teenage girls whilst living on the Marquesas Islands. They did not ignore the fact, they talked about it. Audiences have the right to know in order to make their own mind.
What is your opinion on the subject? Have you been to the exhibition at the National Gallery? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Thank you so much for reading this blog post. I do appreciate it.