Is Gaugin's artistic career tainted?

For my birthday I went to go and see Gaugin portraits at the National Gallery with my economics fanatic father. Going with someone who is not as open-minded when it comes to understanding or appreciating art is always interesting because it seemingly highlights the somewhat rarity of my interpretations. I have never known loads about Gaugin but I have always admired his beautiful portraits of Tahitian women. The subject matters are refreshing, especially when studying the western white portraits consistently for most of my artistic career. Yet I had never known about Gaugin and behind the scenes of these portraits. My father did take interest in his works and saw how they are admirable, I thought Gaugin would go down better than Anthony Gormley or Dora Maar, but then we started to read about Gaugin and his relationship with these Tahitian women.

I think the words of Eddy Frankel get across the grotesque undertones of his Tahitians portraits:" Behind the colours and shapes is a deeply misogynistic, sexually repugnant, colonial narrative that just can’t be ignored." His misogynistic intentions are evidently clear as these young Tahitian women are sexually exploited in the portraits. To remove the notion of his artistic genius ultimately leaves us with what he truly was, which in my opinion, was a predator. This is evident in many of his paintings, but I would like to focus on one, in particular, Barbarian Tales. Even the mere sight of this painting shows explicit and unruly intentions. It depicts a fellow artist called Meyer de Haan lurking behind two nude Tahitian women with exposed breasts, they face out towards us, towards the observers, oblivious to the satanic presence behind them. The voyeurist annotations of this painting make it even more disturbing and looking at it as a woman seems to make it even more angering. The presentation of Haan is devilish as he has been painted with horns in his head and with sharpened zoomorphic claws. Looking at this I can only envision it as a representation of Gaugin himself, preying on these innocent naive women sitting in front of him. How can I possibly appreciate the ability of this artist without associating it with his repellant motivations? Walking around with my father we were both constantly reminded of his backstory, his marriage to the 13-year-old Tahitian girl and his sexual relations with many others infecting them with syphilis.

This was my first thought coming out. The anger I was feeling was essentially juxtaposed to this admiration of his paintings. There is the idea of dissociating his personal intentions from his artistic creations, but is that really possible once you have learned about what he has done? Reading reviews on this exhibition I was enlightened by the number of critics who had explored this idea and made it clear that his lifestyle choices are not able to be looked past. With all this in mind, I want to leave you with some ideas. In the twenty-first century, being part of a society with such progressive and promising gender equality advancements, are we required to look past his lifestyle and his criminal acts placing it down to mere historical male power over women, and women of colour. Even though wrong, do we place him historically in accepting the gruesome truth of the past or do we view him for what he is in our eyes today, a rapist? How would you look at Gaugin, and are you able to separate his artistic creations to his actions?

Paul Gaugin, 1902.
Paul Gaugin, Barbarian Tales, 1902.

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