As I mentioned in my previous post, one special treat in New York was our visit to the Museum of Modern Art, at the invitation and in the company of Lotte Johnson, the Curatorial Assistant of the recently opened Gauguin exhibition entitled Metamorphoses. Lotte matriculated in Fitz in 2006 to read English but after one year switched to History of Art and has never looked back. After graduation she served an internship at MoMA, which she converted into a salaried post. This was her first major assignment, albeit under the oversight of a more senior curator.

This guest post is by Christopher Padfield (Engineering 1968).

Cover of  Gauguin: Metamorphoses, published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2014

Cover of Gauguin: Metamorphoses, published by The Museum of Modern Art, 2014

 Paul Gauguin was by any standards an oddball, even in the eccentric company of Europe’s artistic world at the end of the nineteenth century. He started work as a mariner and on release from the navy became a stockbroker and businessman in Paris. During this time he met many artists, collected their work and formed firm friendships with several who are now highly regarded. With their assistance, he started to paint. He married a Danish woman, had five children, and after suffering terribly in the financial crash of 1882, moved unsuccessfully to Denmark before returning to Paris. Strong-headed and aged nearly 40, he set about building the sort of reputation as an artist that could sustain him both critically and financially, without any formal artistic training whatever.

Various influences encouraged Gauguin to travel, and he spent time (with his paintbrush) in Panama and Martinique. There he took a young mistress, and on return abandoned his family. Unconventional and indeed angry at the many restrictions imposed by social norms in his relatively affluent layer of Western Europe, he yearned for something more ‘sauvage’, as he termed it. His immediately recognizable painting style – very much his own fusion and development of the aesthetics that were coursing through the artistic mainstream – progressed to a climax during his periods in Tahiti, where, famously, he repaired to enjoy what he hoped would be a land of free sex and ‘primitive’ culture. But he was disappointed to find first that the French, hand in hand with the Catholic Church, had destroyed much of what he hoped to find, and perhaps second that his fantasies were just that: the idealized exploitative fantasies of a male of the species, bent on sexual and cultural plunder.

This exhibition was not primarily a retrospective of the rightly-celebrated saturated-colour canvases he produced in Tahiti and elsewhere, though thankfully it included some of those. It was explicitly about ‘darker’ urgings and developments to be witnessed particularly clearly in the restless experimenting he did in other media – primarily various kinds of printing, and polychrome timber panels carved in relief, but also rare ceramics and beautiful carved wooden sculptures in the round. Our guide Lotte Johnson’s boundless enthusiasm and fresh, encyclopedic knowledge of Gauguin were both impressive and transformative in understanding this exhibition. The economy with which the exhibits were displayed and commented on allowed plenty of space for each viewer to re-evaluate their own response to this celebrated artist.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Idol. 1894-95. Woodcut with hand additions, comp. 5 15/16 x 4 5/8″ (15.1 x 11.7 cm). Private collection, USA

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Idol. 1894-95. Woodcut with hand additions, comp. 5 15/16 x 4 5/8″ (15.1 x 11.7 cm). Private collection, USA

 What, then, was our response? The exhibition did not explicitly invite us to consider whether the material on show in this, one of the world’s top venues for the appreciation and exhibition of quality ‘modern art’, was indeed ‘art’, but we did so nonetheless! Some of it was fascinating and indeed beautiful, but some of the printing could equally have been little more than the messy experimentation of a moderately talented student at art college. It did not convince me, though it was interesting. On that reading, have these experiments been upgraded to the top rank of public veneration simply because a portion of his work came, after his death in the remote Marquesas islands, possibly of syphilis, to be lauded and acclaimed as evidence of genius?

Nor did the exhibition choose to acknowledge the nature of the re-evaluation that it might prompt in the mind of the viewer, of the moral stature of this man. Ineluctably, however, a developing understanding of these ‘darker’ themes stimulated a wholesale revision of what we were seeing in the celebrated paintings. It could hardly be a distortion to assert that the works exhibited, dating from the last 13 or so years of his life, major on his obsession with, and exploitation of adolescent girls. But the exhibition primly treated the pubescent women he both exploited (raped?) and idealised, merely as ‘themes’. It concentrated instead on the minutiae of his experimentation.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent). 1893-94. Woodcut, comp. 14 x 8″ (35.6 x 20.3 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent). 1893-94. Woodcut, comp. 14 x 8″ (35.6 x 20.3 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection

We wondered unhappily whether de facto veneration of these themes amounted to validation of his cultural fantasies? Could we, just as credibly, not be witnessing little more than the blunderings of a relatively unsophisticated mind in a world that was alien to him – a world that he understood as little as did the colonial powers, and the church he so despised?

Worry as we might about his lack of acuity and objectivity as an anthropologist, or his lack of integrity and empathy as a human being, the exhibition left us with the impression that here was an unconventional, creative and yet perhaps erratic artist: one who was capable of flights of genius, and who therefore still justifiably draws the crowds. I am not convinced that Gauguin rewrote the rules for painterly expression for future generations in the way that Beethoven did for music a century before, or Picasso did for the visual arts a decade or so later. His oeuvre undoubtedly did have considerable influence on other artists, both in a direct sense stylistically, and indirectly by revealing to them the glories of indigenous art from other cultures.

But let us not be lulled into forgetting that morally this was a pretty comprehensively monstrous man, whose attitude to women and his practice with girl-children was despicable. Was it an underlying intention of the exhibition’s promoters that we arrive at this kind of re-evaluation? Perhaps I have focused on the ‘wrong things’, but I find the moral conclusions abundantly clear, and not-ignorable, and the evidence for true grand-mastery of artistic experimentation insecure.

This was an exquisitely curated exhibition that explicitly invited re-evaluation of a recognized master. The journey it launched us upon was fascinating, for which we were grateful. We wonder what kinds of responses it has elicited from other viewers?

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

1 Comment

  1. What a terrific blog!

    I would dearly love to make it over to NY to see this, but sadly I don’t think it will be possible.

    Some reviewers have made a lot of the idea that this exhibition introduces ‘darker themes’ into our thinking about Gauguin, but this is something I would really like to get Lotte’s take on. The pictures I have seen reproduced are, in the main, only ‘darker’ in the literal sense that he used black to print with. The themes of Polynesian fauna and flora and the adolescent girls he exploited are the same as in his paintings.

    I was fascinated last week to see the Saatchi Gallery blog blunder onto the subject of Gauguin’s life – prompted, sadly, not by Lotte’s exhibition but by the 111th anniversary of his death.

    It was very interesting to watch people queue up after this very negative, scathingly biographical article to defend Gauguin and say that his life and his morals (or lack thereof) should have no bearing on our consideration of his art.

    The article title ‘THE UNLAWFUL LEGACY OF PAUL GAUGUIN’ is interestingly inaccurate in the context of Nicky’s work, given that the age of consent in France was only 13 right up until 1945.

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