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Gauguin, What Do I Do About You?

by Sylvie Schwartz

I recently went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where I was confronted with one of my favourite paintings that I’ve loved since I first started studying art several years ago: Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It was the first time that I’d seen it in person, and the experience of standing in front of it was as moving as I’d always imagined it to be. The problem, though, was that this was Gauguin - the man who championed the Primitivism movement, or the idea that non-Western cultures had retained some fundamental true human essence that Europe had lost through the processes of things like modernization and industrialization. 

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–1898. Oil on canvas. 139 cm × 375 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image courtesy of the MFA Boston.

His paintings, though beautiful, are imbued with racism, a well-known and accepted fact by those who study his art, yet it often remains ignored by the museums that exhibit him. An obvious answer would be to stop showing him. My heart hurts, though, to think about never standing in front of his work again. Abuse is obviously never justifiable as being “for the sake of beauty,” and an attitude of “art for art’s sake” is too often used to cover up the very real damage caused by the ideologies that are necessarily a part of the artworks created in those contexts. It is also undeniable that I am able to lament the prospect of the loss of Gauguin’s art because, as a white person, I am not the one being harmed by the philosophy and attitude that his work expounds.

At the same time, it’s hard to erase the ugliness of our history and of art’s history. To ignore artists like Gauguin completely would be to erase a history of the use of art as a tool for a racist agenda, something that is all the more powerful when we consider that art is most frequently framed as the product of some kind of “pure human expression” and thus what’s reflected in it must be some “pure human truth.” The examination of such histories and the pain that they cause is important if we want to make any kind of progress towards an equitable society. So, in some ways, it seems like whether we exhibit Gauguin or whether we stop exhibiting Gauguin, we lose either way. I wonder how we could make progress towards more responsibly showing and talking about his work.

This summer, I saw an exhibit on the artist in Chicago. The exhibit focused more on his time in Breton, and focused more on his furniture, woodworking and pottery than his painting, but did inevitably include his travels around the Pacific Islands, and particularly his relationship to Tahiti, which is most famous. This exhibit did a very good job of making it clear that when Gauguin got to Tahiti, he was disappointed by its failure to conform to his imagined, ideal “primitive” country, and therefore his artwork doesn’t reflect the real Tahiti that he visited but rather what he wanted Tahiti to be. They even included photos of Tahiti at the time, placed alongside Gauguin’s paintings to show the difference. While the attention placed on the artificiality of Gauguin’s depictions of Tahiti set this exhibit apart from most, it still casts Gauguin as a romanticized, heroic figure trying to recapture the “true essence” of Tahiti as it was before colonization. It hardly points out that Gauguin had no credibility that would allow him to achieve that, and furthermore by including photographs of Tahiti rather than Tahitian artwork the exhibit still suggests that Tahiti is without its own art—and therefore that its people lack a trait that we so often use to define what it means to be “human”—and that it is therefore incapable of representing itself, but rather needs a benevolent, white hero such as Gauguin to come represent it for them.

I hardly have answers to these questions that curators and historians have been grappling with for decades, but it is striking that Gauguin continues to be our go-to for representations of “Tahitian art” and art from other Pacific Islands, despite that he is neither from there nor used his artwork to illustrate the real experiences that he had there. I suppose one thing we could propose would be: what if we exhibited Gauguin with very little Gauguin at all, in a setting in which his works were vastly outnumbered by works from the cultures during the time period in which Gauguin sought to represent them, thereby allowing them to speak for themselves and showing Gauguin’s depictions as only a side note with a less-than-reverent tone? But even this strategy may pay too much attention to Gauguin and all his racist attitudes, and the question remains whether any appreciation for his work is too much in the face of all the damage that he’s done.

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