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Paul Gauguin’s Insurmountable Immorality

From 1902 to 1903, Paul Gauguin lived out his final days mostly drunk and suffering from syphilis on the Polynesian island of Hiva Oa. Most of this time was spent in a compound he had carved with the words “Maison de Jouir”— House of Orgasms. As explained by the English art historian John Richardson, Gauguin’s was not a gentlemanly departure from our world.

Gauguin, the man, was no doubt a difficult person to like. He was self-aggrandizing at a Liszt-ian level —passing around photographs of himself, writing fawning “critiques” of his own work, frequently inebriated, often promiscuous, and more than happy to exploit his privilege as a white man by abandoning his wife and children to move to French-colonized Polynesia, where he took local lovers, many of whom were underage. The special challenge with Gauguin is that while there are many artists who have messy, abusive, or even illegal personal lives, Gauguin’s art and life are inherently mixed. His depictions of nude and near-nude Polynesian women are clear about their misogyny and colonial power — this was never something Gauguin tried to disguise.

His personal conduct and colonial posturing have not affected his popularity, however. In 2014, Rudolf Staechelin, a retired Sotheby’s executive, sold Gauguin’s 1892 painting “When Will You Marry?” in which two young Polynesian women stare out sensually, for about $210 million, making it the third most expensive painting ever sold. Between these kinds of sales and the fact that Gauguin is represented in museums across the world, it is clear that his artistic reputation has not been fatally harmed.

Whether or not his reputation should be harmed is an important question, but it is not, as a new exhibition at the Grand Palais suggests, the only question we should ask in regard to the pioneering Frenchman.

Perhaps, the Polynesian part of his life — and the work he did there, which tends to be his most expensive and most talked about— matters less than most contemporary scholars believe.

This is, at least, the argument of “Gauguin the Alchemist.” Running through January 22, the show includes 54 paintings along with 29 ceramics, 35 sculptures and objects, 14 woodworks, 67 engravings, and 34 drawings. Having been at the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year, the exhibition draws mostly from the permanent collections of the Art Institute as well as of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, both of which hold some of the largest collections of Gauguin’s works in the world.

Gloria Groom, the Art Institute’s chairperson of European sculpture and painting and the curator of “Gauguin the Alchemist,” wants to shift our gaze, at least partially, from Polynesia to France, where Gauguin taught himself to be an artist. Although he was never formally trained, Gauguin’s formative artistic years began when he worked as a French merchant marine from ages 17 to 23, living his life on the high seas. It is here that he picked up the craft of whittling and woodwork. Accordingly, there are far more objets d’art than paintings in the new exhibition, and they point towards the innovative, flat, and vivid style that would later characterize many of his most beloved paintings. There is, for instance, a carved pear-wood sarcophagus engraved with Edgar Degas-esque ballerinas and laughing faces in the style of the Japanese netsuke, and there are bizarre, fragile ceramics — bowls and vases, mostly — that maintain a grotesque beauty. They appear to be a precursor to his mixed depictions of Polynesia, at once day-dreamy and brimming with sexual tension.

As a stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin often attended art shows, bought Japanese and French prints, and tried his hand in oil painting. In 1876, at age 28, he had a landscape painting accepted by the Paris Salon. Later, he collected the work of Paul Cézanne, became a pupil of Camille Pissarro, and was a friend of Degas. But Gauguin, as “Gauguin the Alchemist” shows so well, succeeded in going beyond impressionism, landing in a style that was more about intellectual reflections than split-second impressions. It is just these kinds of spiritual, serious takes on the young beauties of Polynesia that make them so arresting — and, given his personal life, disturbing.

The exhibition rightfully begins with a room called “From Subject to Symbol,” which shows Gauguin’s early shift toward compositions with moral meanings — vessels for his deepest feelings. A room called “The Tropics Imagery” highlights the significance of Maori traditions in Gauguin’s earlier works. Later, a section called “Myths and Reinventions” explores the mystical aspect of his work and the impressive formal research he put into his paintings. The final section, “In His Own Surroundings,” focuses on his decorative research in his final years, especially exploring his obsession with the lush nature of Polynesia.

With the stock market crash of 1882, Gauguin lost his job, and he took up painting full time. He had, at the time, four children and a wife to support, but it mattered little to him.He moved the family to Copenhagen to live with his wife’s family in order to save money; but, after only a year-and-a-half, he left for Paris with his eldest son, Clovis, put him in the care of his sister, Marie, and never saw his family again. He maintained some correspondence, writing letters to his wife like one in 1892, in which, in classic Gauguin bluntness, he declared, “I am a great artist, and I know it.”

The exhibition does well to prove Gauguin’s statement. But it also includes an unintended comedic touch: a digital hologram of his “House of Orgasms” hut on Hiva Oa. Including a recreation of his pleasure hut is not uncommon in Gauguin retrospectives — numerous previous exhibitions have done so — but, given the curator’s argument, it strikes a wrong chord.

A misguided attempt at “immersion,” the museum earnestly writes that this hologram is “an opportunity for visitors to experience a unique immersion in his creative studio.” It is an amusingly creepy prospect to enter Gauguin’s studio, where, in his drunken reverie, he had scores of pornographic photographs for company, not to mention local women who undoubtedly stopped by.

Still, its inclusion underscores an important point, and one that the exhibition seems to miss: to enter Gauguin’s artistic life is to enter his personal life. There is no getting around the real Gauguin.

This essay first appeared in Modern Painters.


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