“Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” barked the title of an appallingly serious recent article in The New York Times. Anyone who sees the current exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s portraits at London’s National Gallery of Art and makes the mistake of reading the commentary might be forgiven for any cautious agreement with the erstwhile paper of record. Far from celebrating the artist’s sensual flight from the limitations of an industrialized, bourgeois Europe, the notes instead instruct us that Gauguin’s most intriguing work—from his “sometimes troubling” (uh oh!) Polynesian period—was merely an indulgence in “colonial and misogynist fantasies” of a place where he “undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged Westerner to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him.” The exhibition’s audio guide reinforces the point even more bluntly, musing in a schoolmarm’s tone whether it is time for us prurient children to stop looking at Gauguin’s work altogether, presumably before the Torquemadas of Title IX strike it from university curricula altogether to spare milquetoast millennials yet another of life’s cruel triggers.
The unimpeachably woke credentials of whoever wrote the exhibition’s commentary stand out like those of an ousted Stalinist Labour MP in a United Kingdom where the political party of wokeness just suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1935. Gauguin, who lived most of his life in extreme poverty, neither had nor expected “privilege” in the South Seas. He went there after failing to find any other place original enough to inspire his creative impulses—the list includes the culturally distinct Brittany of his native France, the Peru of his childhood, and the Caribbean he wandered in early adulthood. The work from his Polynesian years, along with his attempts to popularize Polynesia as the origin of a chic new style, flopped in a Europe that knew virtually nothing about a place that would hardly be thought of, and still less “exoticized,” in the mainstream West for at least another half century. Noa Noa, the artist’s short journal of Polynesian life whose title means “fragrant scent,” is replete with soulful gratitude for generosity extended in the beautiful place where Gauguin settled. He was warmly received and, as a guest, enjoyed the hospitality with which any visitor to those beautiful islands is showered. This extended at the time to Polynesia’s sexual freedoms, which gave him two wives who would today be legal minors but who were not dramatically younger than the teenage brides Europe regularly produced in the era. And, in perhaps the ultimate irony for the National Gallery’s white-male bashers whose experience of Polynesia probably does not extend beyond overly sweetened cocktails at London’s Mahiki or some Shoreditch hellhole, Gauguin’s final years saw him become a vehement opponent of colonial rule.
One of the few disappointments for those of us who actually have been to French Polynesia is the absence of Gauguin’s work from the setting in which he created it. Tahiti’s local Gauguin Museum contains only reproductions of works now held in European and American collections. Portraits selected from among these works form the core of the National Gallery’s exhibition and they are glowing, no matter how “problematic” the curators tried to make them by their asinine scribblings.
Charmingly set against a background of warm colors in London’s cold, damp winter, the exhibition comprises multiple media to show how Gauguin perceived the human image. It begins with the earliest experiments from his mid-thirties, when he decided to become a full-time artist, in a series of self-portraits depicting their painter in guises ranging from the self-assured artist he hoped to be to a suffering Christ in dramatic New Testament scenes. More than mere narcissism, their project, following the self-portrait mastery of Dürer and Rembrandt, was to express a worldview defined by the artist as subject. Having mastered rendering his own facial expression, Gauguin moved on to Parisian subjects, exemplified by his 1884 portrait of his Danish first wife Mette Gad, whose swirling evening dress and angular bearing would have made her a fit subject for Manet.
Not content with a career in mannered portraiture of Parisian socialites, Gauguin wandered off to Brittany to paint its local people in their distinctive garb. The portraits became more abstract in their geometry (“primitives,” as he described them), in a manner that anticipated Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. He still managed to insert a self-portrait in this idiom, featured in 1889’s Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin. Painting briefly in the tempestuous company of Vincent van Gogh at the “Studio of the South” in Arles, Gauguin started to use light and symbol more prominently before determining to embark for Polynesia.
Once he had exhausted other distant locales, Polynesia was a radical yet natural choice. Only colonized in 1880, it had experienced just over a decade of French rule by the time Gauguin arrived in 1891. In a carved-up world of empires, it remained “unspoiled” enough for the artist’s sensibilities but sufficiently Francophone for his practical needs, and appropriately drenched in sunlight for his innovative adaptation of light.
His early portraits there, such as Woman of the Mango (1892), depicted local women in the long dresses that nettlesome missionaries had lately introduced out of concern for the modesty of their new converts. Gauguin detested this sartorial colonialism and quickly began to paint them wearing their traditional affect but in a new, stylized idiom. Exotic Eve, from the first half of the 1890s, presents a nude in an approximation of the Garden of Eden, a religious reference that channeled the artist’s almost mystical view of his new home. (After a failed return to France, Gauguin returned to Polynesia in 1895 and remained there until his death in 1903.) Barbarian Tales (1902) includes a crouching self-portrait, staring forward in contemplation past two cross-legged, bare-breasted women with only skimpy bands about the waist and flowers crowning their hair.
Marquesan Man in the Red Cape (or The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa), also from 1902, incorporates a sharp red cape and sacred animals in the best traditions of European aristocratic portraiture to depict the endurance of native traditions in the face of the colonial rule Gauguin despised. It was likely no accident that his sculptured wood portraits include an irreverent depiction of the lecherous missionary bishop Monseigneur Martin, who castigated Gauguin for his relationships with native girls while carrying on several of his own. The primitive visage of Père Paillard, or Father Lechery (1902), depicts the hypocritical cleric as a naked devil with horns prominently protruding from his oversized head. Martin was unamused when Gauguin displayed the carving in front of his final place of residence to show the passing Polynesians exactly what he thought to their local mission priest, but he did not have to stomach Gauguin much longer. The artist died just a year later, at the age of fifty-four. He may have been broke, but at least he was not woke.