Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Trial of Paul Gauguin

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Trial of Paul Gauguin

Article excerpt

The painter Paul Gauguin has been the object of criticism linking him to the sins of colonial occupation and European imperialism. This essay examines the case against Gauguin. It asks the reader to examine closely the assumption that representation is necessarily a form of appropriation. The larger aim is to establish a more careful idea of the moral relation between art, especially modernist art, and reality.

When the painter Paul Gauguin asked August Strindberg for a friendly endorsement, the Swedish luminary had to decline--and bluntly he did: "I cannot understand your art and I cannot like it" (Chipp 80). Whether Strindberg didn't understand Gauguin's art because he didn't like it or didn't like it because he couldn't understand it is a point which one can make into a matter of self-examination. To more recent critics, disliking Gauguin has been found to be no obstacle to understanding his art. On the contrary. Almost obligatory indeed is the frown, the pained nod, the accusatory glint which now often greets the name of Gauguin. For this Impressionist master, as we know, spent ten years of his life in colonial Tahiti, painting and disporting with the natives and availing himself of all the advantages which colonialism, racial domination, and patriarchy put at his disposal. These circumstances stain the man and his oeuvre as the sins of our fathers must if we believe in moral progress.

Sins there certainly were. And happily the time is now past when the sins of artists could be brushed under the immunity clause granted to great minds and creators. That paltry excuse no longer flies. Anyone who speaks on Gauguin's behalf today must concede two basic points: one is that Gauguin doesn't seem to have been an especially endearing man; the other is that his stay in Tahiti partakes of the French colonial occupation of Polynesia, and in a general sense inherits the guilt thereof.

Unlike mystical Vincent Van Gogh, amiable Claude Monet, or dependable Paul Cezanne, Gauguin isn't an easy man to like. From his writings--and the testimony of his wife, friends, and associates--there emerges the picture of a crank and a self-pitying bully. Often uncouth and bragging, belligerent and vainglorious, he could be callous to everything aside from his artistic ambition. His sexual habits, in every way typical of that boorishly male era, hailed after the bordello: blunt, hygienic, and practical. Loyalty seems not to have been his strong suit. To say that he was an indifferent husband and occasional father to his five children is to put things in the most favourable light.

As to the other charge, i.e., that Gauguin was party to the colonization of Tahiti, it has basic fact on its side. Had there been no such colonization, there would have been no steamboat to take the artist to Papeete, no colonial administration to stamp his droit de sejour, no infrastructure to facilitate his stay, and no colonial postal service to ship his paintings back to France. His sojourn, as he himself knew, corrupted Tahiti; it was part of the cultural contamination visited on the Polynesians by European presence.

Now, these charges have this in common that they mostly concern Gauguin the person. And it goes without saying that Gauguin the man isn't even remotely the reason why we speak of Gauguin today; it is because of the art he created. That the work of an artist is coloured by what we know of his personality and circumstances is indisputable; that his paintings must be "problematic" to the same extent and degree that he was "problematic," however, is a large inference that merits looking into. Just as we mustn't airbrush the colonial circumstances in which Gauguin created his works, it cannot be automatically assumed that these works do, or even can, bear the sins of their all-too-human maker. Guilt by association, after all, is a procedural error. We cannot deny there is a moral link between the man and the artist; what we don't have is a systematic theory showing that that link is altogether straightforward. …

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