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I love controversy. That’s why I’m so intrigued by this discussion (and others) of the life and work of Paul Gauguin.

Simply put: Gauguin was a important 19th-Century French painter who left his wife and kids so he could paint, and fornicate with, very young girls in Tahiti. His work is regarded as an important bridge between the French Impressionists and the Modernism of the early 20th Century. He ended his life as a miserable drunk in French Polynesia, where he died of a morphine overdose and complications brought about by a long-term relationship with syphilis. He was just about to begin serving one-month prison sentence. He was 54.

Self-Portrait (Paul Gauguin, 1893)

How’s that for an obituary?

Gauguin’s legacy as an artist is huge. He will forever go down in history, for example, as the “other party” in a drunken altercation with Vincent Van Gogh which led to the latter’s decision to cut off his ear with a razor. He hung out with Pissaro and Cezanne. Picasso was a fan. His paintings are valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

He was also, to put it mildly, deeply flawed. It’s the questions raised by these flaws that aroused my interest.

In the Huffpo article cited above, and in the very insightful and brutally frank review of a Gauguin show by a woman named Jen Graves cited within it, the discussions seem to float around the issues of his character as much as, if not more than, his art. Graves in particular seems to not only  focus on Gauguin’s wretched character as much as his work, she seems to come perilously close to suggesting that we shouldn’t like Gauguin’s art now because he was such a horrible person 100 years ago. As much as I like Graves’ writing and respect her right to a well considered opinion, I think the questions raised in these articles, explicitly in Huffpo, implicitly by Graves, are, well, stupid. A lot of the comments on both of these posts were even worse.

Two questions from the Huffington Post: “Does talent allow one to ignore the social code? Does historical ingenuity compensate for personal faults?” These are good questions of your goal is to start meaningless arguments and inflame opinions, but they can’t get us to any useful place because the answers are pretty obvious.

To begin with, what social code are they talking about, and what, exactly, is a social code anyway? I see his life and his behavior as nothing more than a context for his art. He was a creature of his times, and his times were very different. This isn’t excusing his behavior, as if it were in my power to do that in the first place. He was a pig by our standards, and he was probably a pig by the standards of his day. Like it or not, however, his pigness helped shape his art just as our knowledge of his pigness informs our reaction to it.

As to the second question, which I find very poorly worded, what “compensation” is even possible?Are they asking  whether or not we need to like or respect an artist as a human being in order to appreciate their work? It’s a litmus test that a lot of people use, unfortunately, and they are the ones who suffer from using it.

Two Tahitian Women (Paul Gauguin, 1899)

In order to stimulate discussion, or maybe to direct it where they want it to go, Huffpo raises the specter of modern-day degenerates like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. They also point to “the latest controversy over Chris Brown,” about which I know nothing and care even less so I’m going to ignore that one except to say that you really need to wonder about an intellect that would put Chris Brown into the same discussion as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.

Polanski and Allen, like Gauguin, are notorious for their fondness for young girls. In Allen’s case, there has been no hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Polanski is another matter. In both cases, we’re talking about Academy Award-winning filmmakers.

I’ve never been a fan of Polanski’s work but I like Woody Allen films a lot.  When the Soon-Yi Previn story broke, I thought Allen a rat-bastard but I never though, “Gee, I guess I can’t like his films anymore.” To the contrary, I took what I had learned and re-evaluated my take on his work. What he did, legal or not, was a pretty horrible betrayal of his family and displays a rather remarkable sense of entitlement on his part. It doesn’t make his movies any less entertaining, less witty, or less insightful.

As wrong-headed as I find the school of thought that would suggest that we can’t admire Gauguin’s art because he was such a dirtbag incomprehensible, at least it’s arguable from a moral perspective. I disagree, but you CAN make the argument that liking Gauguin is a tacit endorsement of the racist, misogynist, colonial-oppressor world that spawned it. It’s bullshit, but you can make the argument.

What I can’t understand is the line of reasoning that says we need to evaluate the art, not the artist. Neither article made this mistake, but a lot of the people who offered comments did and I don’t see how a reasonable person could commit to such a transparently hollow argument.  Gauguin’s life and behavior aren’t an “interesting sidebar,” aren’t irrelevant, the works shouldn’t be permitted to “stand on their own.” They can’t. They’re Gauguin’s progeny, his children. Every thought, every experience, every lust and desire he ever felt could be lurking behind each brush stroke.

Knowing what I know about Gauguin has re-cast his Pacific island subjects from “dusky maidens” to unfortunate victims who weren’t permitted to resist the exploitation of his twisted little fantasies. How can that not be important?

Learning how Gauguin got to the point where his wretched life ended tells us a lot about his world if we’re willing to listen to the messages on the canvas. It can also tell us a lot about our own world, since we are the product of a past shaped by colonialism, misogyny, and a cultural landscape shaped by, in Graves’ eloquent words, “whiny, violent, and jaw-droppingly self-centered white dudes.” It’s OK if you want to cast Gauguin and his world in terms every bit as bigoted as any he might chose to employ, just don’t let your flair for prose blind you to the useful messages you might find.


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