Magazine article Artforum International

Paradise Lost

Magazine article Artforum International

Paradise Lost

Article excerpt

SOMETIMES IT TAKES an exhibition for us to sec a familiar artist's work afresh. This is certainly the case for Paul Gauguin, whose reputation increasingly tends to obscure his achievement. Viewers have long been suspicious both of his art and of his personal behavior (taking a thirteen-year-old "wife" in Tahiti is the best known of his misdemeanors). His countless depictions of "primitive" Breton peasants and half-naked Polynesian women are condemned, respectively, for their metropolitan condescension and for their sexual and racial stereotyping, and his work is also taken to task for its inauthenticity: Although presented as the direct record of his experiences in Brittany and the South Seas, it has repeatedly been shown to be copied from commercial photographs or tourist postcards and from the compositions of colleagues. The same is true of his prolix writings. Noa Noa (1 893-94), his semifictionalized account of his first Tahitian trip, invariably leaves a bad taste in the mouth, both for its primitivizing descriptions of Polynesians and their culture and for its shameless plagiarism (most famously of Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout's 1837 account of Polynesian mythology, large sections of which Gauguin copied verbatim as though they were the words of his young mistress, whispering the secrets of the South Seas as she lay by his side in the dark Tahitian night). Camille Pissarro was the first of many to smell a rat, complaining that Gauguin was "always poaching on someone's ground; now he is pillaging the savages of Oceania."

Such is the force of this view that it has become more and more difficult to remember what Gauguin was valued for in the first place. Standing in front of his work in the exhibition "Gauguin: Maker of Myth" at London's Tate Modern this fall will help to jog our memories. Gauguin's colleagues--when not appalled by his behavior--were impressed by two aspects of his work: first, its rejection of the straitjacket of mimesis (an innovation whose radicality we tend to underestimate after a century of abstraction); second, its deployment of complex narrative structures (this was equally revolutionary, a clear refusal of the devotion to the retinal that had by the mid-1880s become the hallmark of advanced painting). It is this second aspect that the curators of the Tate exhibition--Amy Dickson, Tamar Garb, Christine Riding, and Belinda Thomson--have placed front and center, exploring the intertwining of diverse religious and mythical narratives in Gauguin's densely worked Symbolist iconographies and reexamining his ties to writers such as Stephane Mallarme (the poet famously hosted a farewell banquet on the eve of the artist's departure for Tahiti in 1891).

In focusing on narrative, the exhibition risks making the artist seem rather nineteenth-century, one of those unfortunate souls who missed the modernist boat as it set sail for the pleasures of pure painting. But this high-modernist account is by now mostly discredited, and the Tate's attention to Gauguin's storytelling--and in particular to the kinds of stories he told--is to be commended, not least because it serves to dismantle some of the more persistent misperceptions regarding his work. It is generally assumed that he painted the South Pacific as an earthly paradise. This is partly true, but his vision was equally marked--as visions of paradise perhaps necessarily are--by a sense of loss. A mournful refrain sounds in both his writings (in Noa Noa he repeatedly observed the melancholy of the island and its inhabitants) and his art. As the exhibition demonstrates, his paintings could be gloomy--Te faaturuma (Brooding Woman), 1892, is just one of many images of morose natives--and even openly elegiac. Parahi te marae (There Is the Temple), 1892, which shows the empty space of a disused sacred precinct and has the specter of a long-vanished Tahitian effigy scratched indistinctly into its lushly painted surface, is in both theme and form a picture of pastness, of a culture that disappears before our eyes as the idol sinks into invisibility. …

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