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Old Paul Gauguin: artistic champion of Tahitian sexuality vs. puritanical Euro-Christian colonizers. New Paul Gauguin: “privileged Westerner” who sexually exploited Tahitian girls

November 25, 2019

Tehamana has many parents. The Ancestors of Tehamana 1893

Image: Art Institute of Chicago

Here’s how art poobahs back in 2002 used to write about then-45-year-old Paul Gauguin’s 1893 painting, “Tehamana Has Many Parents,” made while the Parisian-born artist was pursuing la vie exotique in Tahiti:

Gauguin, whose wife Mette-Sophie Gad and their five children were back in Europe, followed in the well-worn footsteps of European visitors in seeing Tahiti as a paradise of sexual generosity. He set out looking for a Tahitian muse, rejecting his first lover because, he complained, she was “half white… glossy from contact with all these Europeans”. Instead he found Tehamana, a 13-year-old Polynesian with whom he had an arranged marriage and, in 1892, a child. “I am sowing my seed everywhere,” he boasted….

[T]his portrait is more than an exotic fantasy. It has an undeniable reality and passion. Tehamana is not simply made to look sexily mysterious; she also seems to be contemplating differences, memories, emotions that Gauguin, the foreigner, cannot comprehend. The painting is of someone whose true identity resists the destructive forces represented by the European dress provided by missionaries, its lacy collar and blue-and-white stripes a uniform of Christianised piety. Against its spirit she wears flowers in her hair and her gaze is sidelong into a world of her own, remote from white-painted mission churches and European ways….

Gauguin portrays Tahiti as a place with an intense sense of the past. The sculpture and writing are not accurate representations of Tahitian culture, but a pastiche incorporating diverse sources. But this painting evokes the depth of memory, oral tradition and heritage that, literally, stands behind Tehamana….

Here’s how art poobahs right now in 2019 write about “Tehamana Has Many Parents” and the rest of Gauguin’s Polynesian oeuvre:

“Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?”

That’s the startling question visitors hear on the audio guide as they walk through the “Gauguin Portraits” exhibition at the National Gallery in London….

The standout portrait in the exhibition is “Tehamana Has Many Parents” (1893). It pictures Gauguin’s teenage lover, holding a fan.

The artist “repeatedly entered into sexual relations with young girls, ‘marrying’ two of them and fathering children,” reads the wall text. “Gauguin undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged Westerner to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him.”…

The show was co-produced with the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and opened in Ottawa in late May. A few days before the opening, the museum’s newly appointed director, Sasha Suda, and the exhibition’s curators decided to edit some of the wall texts after touring the show. Nine labels were changed to avoid culturally insensitive language, according to the museum’s press office.

In Ottawa, the title “Head of a Savage, Mask” was shown with an extended label explaining that the words ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian,’ “considered offensive today, reflect attitudes common to Gauguin’s time and place.” Elsewhere, his “relationship with a young Tahitian woman” was changed to “his relationship with a 13- or 14-year-old Tahitian girl.”

Ha! Cancel Culture meets Thou Hast Conquered, O Pale Galilean–and Cancel Culture wins!

My own opinion of Gauguin (1848-1903) is that, besides being a wife-deserter and relentless self-promoter, he was a vastly overrated artist who stole shamelessly from his far more talented fellow Impressionists Cézanne and Van Gogh. He loved to paint barely pubescent Tahitian girls, sometimes in their modest missionary mumus but more often clad in next to nothing, filling up the paintings’ backgrounds with phony-baloney souvenir-shop “idols” (see above) that were supposed to convey a sense of the authentic primitive Tahitian spirituality that the European Christian colonizers of the islands were trying to squelch. Sometimes, as the exhibition indicates (I saw it in Ottawa in August), he actually carved his own tiki statues to decorate his Tahitian house. But he did have a nice color sense, and his pleasant and decorative paintings with their exotic and vaguely symbolic overtones go down easy with viewers. He has also done wonders for the tourist business in Tahiti.

So it’s hilarious to watch Gauguin being run through the #MeToo cheese-grater. “Paradise of sexual generosity” indeed.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

From → Uncategorized

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