To some, Paul Gauguin is one of Modernism’s great bohemian renegades, a giant of Post-Impressionism who broke free from Europe’s bourgeois shackles in a trailblazing, soul-searching quest for creative liberation in the South Seas.
To others, he was a fraudulent cad, milking the myth of the noble savage to satisfy his exotic fantasies while boosting the market for his art back home. He is one of history’s great dilemmas, and more than a century after he painted his controversial compositions of nude, brown-skinned Tahitian girls—including several of his pubescent lovers—the art world continues to grapple with his legacy.
Overlooking the ugly reality of Gauguin’s pretty paintings, museums have tended to turn the spotlight on his artistic achievements, which, to be fair, are not in dispute. His vibrant, balmy color harmonies and radically decorative, flattened surfaces had a huge impact (on the Western canon, anyway), influencing everyone from Bonnard to Picasso and Matisse. And his move away from Impressionism toward a more narrative, personal, expressionistic style opened the door to weightier subject matter.
(It’s also worth noting that his works command astronomical prices at auction, and his 1892 painting When Will You Marry? is thought to be the second most expensive painting ever sold.)
But while there are plenty of white, male artists whose troubling lifestyles can be understood somewhat separately from their art, the difficulty with Gauguin is that his behavior is laid bare on his canvases. It doesn’t take a politically minded scholar or critic to recognize that his representations of nude Tahitians reflect a sexual and racial fantasy forged from a position of patriarchal, colonialist power. read more