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Was Gauguin 'evil?' What the painting's attacker got right

April 5, 2011 - 03:21 PM
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With her now-infamous rant, Susan Burns took Paul Gauguin's reputation to a place it has long threatened to go: "This is evil," she said, as she attacked the painting "Two Tahitian Women," before declaring it to be "homosexual" and "bad for the children," and then telling officers that she was from the CIA, had a radio in her head, and was going to kill them.

Burns may not have even considered the exhibit before she had her breakdown, but her babbling had a kernel of interest within: the word "evil." Hyperbolic, certainly, but the artist's reputation is the subject of the now-infamous National Gallery show Gauguin: Maker of Myth, and it's not exactly a shining one. Gauguin was known for his artistic genius, but also for his carnal side: After physically abusing his wife, he abandoned his family to move to Tahiti to paint the natives. There, he had sex with Polynesian children, even taking a 13-year-old named Tehmana as his "wife." "Evil" may not be a perfect descriptor for this behavior, but it's not too far off.

gauguin painting attacked
"Two Tahitian Women" by Paul Gauguin was attacked
at the National Gallery last Friday.

Maker of Myth doesn't shy away from the artist's Lothario reputation, though it tries to illuminate attributes of his personality other than pedophilia. But these revelations aren't too flattering, either. Scholarship for the show reveals that Gauguin was a self-aggrandizer and a liar. In a personal branding campaign, he tried to depict himself as part "savage" (a tenuous claim that a wealthy Peruvian relative was Inca), and his island paradise as utopia, unsullied by Western influence (when it was already fully colonized). He depicted himself as Christlike, and he couldn't have been further from it.

The native influence in Gauguin's work is a pastiche of imagery cobbled from his imagination, from Christian mythology, and even art from India and Easter Island. It gave him a way to save face back home, where he was reluctant to admit that colonialism had spread disease, alcoholism, and Western cultural influence in the paradise he painted. It also set him apart from bourgeois society. But in the end, the person who may have been fooled the most by Gauguin's myth-making was himself. Deborah Matthews, who wrote the book Gauguin: An Erotic Life told the Guardian, "Gauguin seems to have fallen for the myth of Tahiti he created … He returned expecting the erotic idyll that was only ever a figment of his imagination. Of course, he didn't find it and the disappointment was profound: he died a twisted and bitter man, having alienated everyone both at home and in Tahiti. It's a sad story of a man who believed his own fiction.'

We have always separated the artist's work and his contributions to post-Impressionism from his personal habits, just as we do for all artists who disappoint us with their indiscretions (Witness: Roman Polanski's Oscars, Chris Brown's newest album debuting at No. 1). The show explains them away as part of Gauguin's mythologizing. Philip Kennicott addressed the problem in his Washington Post review of the show: "The worst thing about phrases such as 'narrative strategies' is that they reduce biographical data to a post-modern stew of moral relativity: Fraudulent self-promotion becomes 'self-mythologizing'; theft becomes playful appropriation; the repeated rape of a child — for what else can you call sex with a girl who wasn’t mature enough to consent or economically or socially powerful enough to refuse — becomes something grouped under the theme 'fictions of femininity."

Who knows whether or not Susan Burns knew any of this when she attacked the painting last Friday. The radio she claimed was in her head could have been at the frequency of the museum audio guide, or it could have been speaking a language only she understood. But with or without her understanding of the artist, her rant added another story to this show about narratives — some true, many false — of a celebrated artist who maybe isn't reviled enough.

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