Sunday, December 15, 2019

Was Gauguin a Creep, and Should it Matter?

Gauguin, Dr. Gouzer and two Tahitian women, courtesy Hyperallergic 
The New York Times posed a question:"Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?" That's kind of a provocative, click-baity title. The term 'canceled' implies that someone is proposing he should be erased from all public exhibitions. But I don't think they're seriously contemplating that.

"Museums," the article says, "are reassessing the legacy of an artist who had sex with teenage girls and called the Polynesian people he painted 'savages.'" Who wants to look at paintings made by the guy who spread syphilis to underage island girls?

Painting by Paul Gauguin
The article quotes an audio guide at a London exhibition "Gauguin Portraits" saying “Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?”

Photo by Jules Agostini allegedly showing Gauguin in Tahiti.  © 2017 Daniel Blau, Munich
The story mentions that qualms about the artist prompted a museum director to rewrite some captions, but admits that there have been plenty of exhibitions about Gauguin lately. There have been retrospectives at the National Gallery in Washington, at the Tate Modern, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other museums.

The question leads to other questions. Should Caravaggio's paintings be taken out of circulation because he was a murderer? Should we ban Egon Schiele's drawings of underage girls because he allegedly abused them? Should we remove all of Picasso's work because of the way he treated women?

I think the work should be available to those who want to see it without someone deciding in advance to take it away. If someone really wanted to censor an artist because of their personal life, who would make such a determination, and by what standards? Should it be according to today's standards, or to those of the artist's time? How can a deceased artist defend himself or herself from false accusations?

Not everything in a museum's collection gets exhibited or published, and many factors go into doing so. In my view, the decision to mount an exhibition or to publish a book on a given artist should be based on the merit of the work itself, whether there's really new light to shed on their life story, and how many shows there have been in recent years. Maybe we should mothball Gauguin because we've seen enough of him. How about a show of other, more able artists who haven't received the exposure, such as Edwin Austin Abbey or Alphonse Mucha?

A related question is whether you can appreciate someone's art without knowing about their biography. Do you enjoy an artist's work more after you learn about their life?  How does your evaluation of someone's work change after you find out they had a dark or criminal personal history? Can you keep your feelings about the art separate from your feelings about the person?

That depends on what their work is about, and how they presented themselves to their audience. I recognize that all of us are flawed, and that artists in particular are almost a separate species from the rest of humanity. Artists tend to live more at the fringes of the mainstream world. I almost expect artists to have taken more risks than average people. Rock 'n' roll wouldn't be the same if some authority applied a morality test to all the musicians.

Recently published letters have cast doubt on Gauguin's portrayal of his life in Tahiti. It apparently wasn't quite the erotic mecca that he tried to convey. He evidently hoped the scandal that surrounded him in Paris would help promote his work. 'The island [and the realities of Gauguin's life there] are virtually unrecognisable in his representations, carefully calculated to intrigue the French audience,' says Nancy Mowll Mathews, author of Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life.

It may be that the museums and newspapers are also being a little disingenuous in wringing their hands about Gauguin as the lascivious colonialist. Let's face it: a little bit of scandal is a good thing for publicity and for the sales market, and it probably doesn't hurt the Gauguin exhibition to receive press coverage, negative or positive.

What do you think? Do you have any examples of how your knowledge of personal biography has changed your appreciation of a given artist's work?
Book: Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life.
The Guardian: Gauguin's erotic Tahiti idyll exposed as a sham
New York Times "Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?" 
Gauguin: It’s Not Just Genius vs. Monster
Thanks, Winsor.


Jeff said...

I've also read (of course I don't know what's really true) that Gauguin is suspected of being the one that cut off Van Gogh's ear after taking money from Theo to join Vincent in the yellow house, and that Picasso blamed a friend for stealing objects from the Louvre that he himself stole. His friend was mortified and joined the French army and was killed in WWI.
Despite not knowing if these specific stories are true, there are enough bad things known about these two that I refuse to look at any of their art.

pat said...

I see this kind of thing a lot in the book world. One site I lurk on has occasional posts by people who boast about googling every new author they consider reading to see if that author is someone they agree with enough to support.

On the one hand, it could be a desire to not be exposed to that person's values. I can sympathize with that. But I rarely see that said in so many words. More often it seems an outgrowth of the responsible shopping movement of my youth, which promised us that we could find a virtuous way to change the world without making the slightest change in our consuming habits, just by requiring all the producers of that stuff to meet moral standards.

I guess I'm conflicted about this. It seems perfectly reasonable to leverage my purchasing power to require MacDonald's to use cage-free eggs, or Walmart to pay better wages. But going after writers and artists seems different, partly because their role in society is to comment and challenge and partly because they are more vulnerable and less powerful - low-hanging fruit, as it were. There's a big difference between trying to make a powerful corporation do big things in the workplace and trying to make the poor person hoping for your recreational dollar meet your personal standards. The latter reminds me of Victorian novels in which the lady of the house contributed to the public good by making stringent moral demands of her servants.

scottT said...

I couldn't help but think about the Waterhouse flap you reported on awhile back. The statement was made and the painting was reinstalled. Perhaps this is a way of having it both ways--to both show the art while giving a nod to the post me too world. Gauguin is always going to be a big draw because he's someone the average person knows about and I don't see that changing much. I don't imagine there is much about his life that would shock many people at this point. It's just that the future seems to be pointing towards reassessing the legacies of the greats of history with an awareness of their sins and foibles.

Thom Rozendaal said...

You certainly can't expect every member of the audience to keep their perceptions of the art and the artist separate, but if anything you should certainly be able to expect it from a museum and thus I don't think any exhibition should ever be canceled just because of the artist's alleged personal life.
It is true that if I know more about an artist's personal life, be it an actor, musician or painter, I feel more connected to the artist and thus also their work. If however I see someone's work and I already like it before finding out some despicable fact about the artist it won't make me like the artwork any less afterwards. How many incredible artists would be lost in obscurity if the art and artists were always judged together? Ironically a lot of musicians that died because of drug overdoses or gang shootings, only became more famous after death, despite their vices.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

Applying ideology - any ideology - to art impoverishes the art, the discourse about art, and the society. Inevitably. Without fail.

One could expect that after so many examples even in recent history, people might learn. Except it seems they never learn, and whoever shouts the loudest still has a much higher chance to impose their pet standards on everyone else.

Jake Stansel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil said...

Should all of Caravaggio’s work be taken down? After all, along with being a remarkable painter and a “rags to riches” story, he was also a drunk and a murderer. How about the recent rumblings about Da Vinci‘s personal life? Should we judge the work on the wall or the curious backstories of many artists? Each set of filters will lead to a different conclusion.

Karen Eade said...

No idea if Gauguin was a creep, but no - it shouldn’t matter. If the art is great then the art is great - it transcends its maker. Otherwise, where do we stop? Michelangelo, for example, was enabled to produce his transcendent work through the patronage of Pope Leo X one of the Medici clan and a man of exceedingly dubious moral habits. So do we refuse to look at David because Leo X paid for it with his filthy lucre? What about the Ancient Greeks, their plays and amphorae and temples etc - paedophilia was not just a subject in literature, vessel decoration or other embellishment - it was a way of life for rich, Athenian males. So do we burn their books and smash their vases? Good grief. We have got to stop judging the past in this way. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there”.

abetena said...

Based on the aesthetic discourse of the second half of the XX century, it seems clear to me that formal aspects alone are not enough to asses the cultural value of a work of art. This does not diminish the historical appreciation we may have for people like Gauging or Picasso, but the question for museums and galleries is: should they present art as mere archivist and storerooms, or do should they show art in order to contribute to contemporary conversations about what constitutes "beauty"?One may say that color is always beautiful, but are the paintings of Gaugin only about color? Perhaps the solution here is not to remove Gaugin, but contextualize it: museums could hang his paintings of young tahitian teens night next to the multiple paintings he did of his own daughters, the daughters he abandoned in poverty for years in order to pursuit his artistic dreams (with this biographical information presented plainly.) The audience may then arrive to their own conclusions about what really constitutes "beauty."

Jim Williams said...

In my city a Rolf Harris wall painting was obliterated because of his now proven sexual predation. This was not a good move. If we carry on this way there will be precious little art left. Whether art is good or bad is an aesthetic question and has nothing to do with the morals of the artist. Stet.

Lou said...

Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Sandra Strait said...

I have to admit that I read Alice in Wonderland a little differently after hearing the rumors about Lewis Carroll. But isn't art about the human experience - both the good and the bad? If I feel I would be supporting the bad lifestyle of a living person then I would not buy or pay to see their work. But once the artist has passed on, knowing their history simply gives you more to contemplate about the vagaries of humanity and how both beauty and evil can exist in the same soul.

Christine said...

I disagree with a few commenters here. Perhaps it's because I'm of a younger generation and because I am a woman, but I do not want to bring more exposure to artists who are known for vile acts against other people (particularly vile acts against marginalized or oppressed groups). At the very least, if this kind of behavior is uncovered, I want everyone to know about it. If it's a living artist, this kind of exposure could introduce them to their new victims, not a risk I'm willing to take. There are so many brilliant artists who never abused women or children. It feels like a spit in the face that we continue to immortalize men like Gauguin and Picasso.

Linda Navroth said...

Young girls have been prostituted in nearly every civilization and still are. Gauguin wasn't doing anything new or provocative. I'm not defending it; only stating fact.
And the idea of any sort of censorship should be cause for alarm. If people are offended by what artists do in their private life or by what they paint no one is twisting their arm to look at it. But in the current social climate, with conservative and religious groups coming to the fore, my alarm bells are starting to ring. First comes censorship, then comes prison. If the time comes when artists and intellectuals are being arrested, we are in serious trouble.

Colei che... said...

Interesting topic, that can be extended to other areas like music, for example (Michael Jackson anyone ? After the documentary on his "Neverland" many radio stations refused - and still refuse - to air his songs), or literature, or even mathematics (Descartes believed animals are "automata" without feelings, and his followers are said they would beat animals to death for fun - would we cancel his work because this is not acceptable anymore?) and science. I suppose the work of art should be appreciated as such without the need to know the biography and psychology of the author. But then, after this becomes public, it is very difficult not to associate the artist with the artwork, and being influenced in some way. :/

A Colonel of Truth said...

Good grief. The PC police, with their insatiable appetite for focusing on any misery of the human condition in order to protect us all, again merit a lump of coal for Christmas. If Gauguin is offensive, don’t look at his work. “Problem” solved. The rest of us can make up our own mind.

Bill Marshall said...

WOW! James, you posted a HOT one here!

Never been much of a fan of Gauguin's work (poor drawing skills in my opinion). So, in my humble opinion, it must have been his travels to exotic places, and his buddies in the art world at the time that made him such a "master". And it appears that he had a great time being an "artist" along the way, despite the inevitable negative outcomes, and (much later) judgments of his life.


rroseman said...

Fear no art .

Wendy Line said...

By coincidence, recently the creator of my favourite artwork was found to have committed terrible crimes. At least one gallery immediately removed his work from their venue. So I went to the hallway in my home, stood in front of his painting and with knife in hand, ripped the canvas apart... Just kidding. I still love it 😄
I agree with your thoughts above James.

Shane said...

The truth is that I have never really liked Gauguin and have always though his work overrated. James you have shown so many other artists that none of my teachers ever referenced that were so marvalous. I'm terrible with names but there have been several Scandinavian and Central Europe artists that did such beautiful work but were quiet and humble and didn't lead sensational exotic lives.

My vote would be that we have seen enough of Gauguin and lets see more of the others. But I doubt that that is what is going to happen.

Sara Davis said...

I've always said it never pays to know much about the actor or the artist. It ruins the art. But that said, I am as curious as the next person and often find myself looking. And it's murky.

Is what a person makes that separate from them? I think not. I think when we create something it becomes a tangible representation of at least some part of who we are.
That said - humans are a complex mess. And often the most horrific humans are kind to someone or create something beautiful or are loved by someone or are creating a larger benefit to society.

Morality is our own invention. Perhaps that is most obvious when we try to apply it to the complexity of beautiful art vs immoral artist.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

The personal and moral shortcomings of an artist has never prevented me from enjoying the work.

Much of the work that really has touched me has been created by artist that we know nothing about, often not even their names - for instance medieval murals, Greek vase paintings or paleolithic cave paintings. They may have been created by really nice people or the most abominable creeps - there is no way that I will ever know (I assume that affordable time travel will not be invented in my lifetime).

In such cases, the only option is to look at the artwork as it presents itself. That is a way of looking ("the cave painting gaze?") that I can easily sort of "switch on" whenever I look at any piece of art.

I find it interesting to learn more about an artist, and often it will cast some light on certain aspects of their art - but so far it has never changed my appreciation of any particular piece.

Wendy said...

Every time I look at a Gaugin painting all I can think about is that I am looking through the eyes of a very sick individual and the art is entirely ruined for me as I wonder if I'm looking at a teenage girl that he raped and infected with syphilis. I don't believe that it is possible to separate the art from the artist.

Susan Krzywicki said...

I agree with the voices who say that we need to reevaluate our artists in context - it is difficult as a sensitive person to look at these works the same way when one begins to realize the pain inflicted on women, on society, on animals. This process of change is slowly happening, with some odd bumps in the road where a particular artist or work comes under the scrutiny of our collective consciousness.

Sometimes we over-react, some times we try to ignore, but on the whole people are trending in the direction of expecting everyone to stop hurting others. To healing the wounds that cause individuals to harm others. To helping people get help when their backgrounds and experiences lead the to feel that violence against others is a good solution to whatever is driving them.

It does seem extremely useful to keep this duality in mind - a person can do something in one field that is positive while being awful in another context. And knowing this does take the bloom off of the shiny object - which is a positive thing.

JackPot said...

After reading your posts and the comments, I get the feeling that what really matters in the end is the succes and exposure, not the art itself. As previously said, we're not going to know the personal life of every artist whose art will appear under our eyes in our lives. But the fact that the ones who gets the most exposure and are known as "great artists that matters" indeed had dangerous or reprehensible behaviour is disturbing (I'm thinking about Polanski for instance). The real question is, "by appreciating their art, do I give money in some way or make it easier for them to perpetuate reprehensible things?" But for dead artists it wouldn't matter in this case. Gauguin is known for his paintings, not his personal life, so I don't think it is "dangerous", or morally reprehensible for people nowadays to appreciate his paintings. However I also think there are way more incredible artists who don't or didn't get the exposure their art deserves, and besides are or were not toxic or dangerous individuals.
It really is a tough topic :(

Jim Douglas said...

"Artists are not saints. They're not people whose first obligation is moral correctness."
--Vincent Desiderio, 06/29/2016

Karl Kanner said...

I think condemning a piece of artwork simply because the artist was of questionable moral character or committed crimes makes about as much sense as summarily dismissing someone's idea during a discussion simply because you don't like them, or even burning books written by people "we don't agree with". Basically, it makes little to no sense at all.

brine blank said...

I watch a lot of old black and white movies/shows...and enjoy looking at the backstories of the actors and actresses from time to time. But I view that as separate from their work for the most part. Finding out that someone had 10 husbands or wives or accused of certain crimes may be an interesting side-note, but I don't sit there watching and thinking about every minutia of their life. I get lost in the work itself for the time I am viewing. The same with art. While that knowledge may give me an eye into the work itself, I can look at the work without complete hatred and scorn for it, even if the person was of 'questionable moral character'.

That being said, we live in a newfound world of "social justice warriors' that sometimes drifts into the world of 'social justice terrorism' as some stumble all over themselves to attack and destroy any perceived slight, real or imagined they feel towards them or their kindred spirits. Rather than even allow people to learn from history, or art, or comedy they find objectionable, there is a scorched earth approach. And there are times where lust for the 'hangman's noose' has punished more than one innocent person. As someone else said, if you don't like it, look somewhere else. At some point these people may realize there are no more 'villages to burn'.

My other gripe that falls into this category is when people go out of their way to discredit or trash an artist or their work because they don't fall under the category of some special interest group, therefore it is not 'valid'. One of my favorite museums was ruined because they wiped out and entire area of classics and rotations of these artists for special interest groupings. It was more about beating your head with a hammer over a 'movement' and a 'person' than about their art, and I sat back and listened to many visitors make similar comments. If I like a work it doesn't suddenly become more 'grand' because we both like moose-track ice cream....nor does it 'become the worse' because they don't.

Lucca Pucca said...

I'm a younger woman and I've noticed that a lot of folks fall into a trap in these situations. Either pretending these accusations don't exist and dismissing them outright, or people hearing of these accusations and cutting off this artist completely and pretending they don't exist. I think both of these solutions aren't great ways to reckon with this. It's not addressing the problem at all. You can't separate the art from the artist, because without the artist, there is no art! What these people create is shaped by their personalities, and by looking at their work with this in mind, a lot of their creative output often makes more sense.

Hearing about Caravaggio's personality makes me understand his work much more, he was extremely dramatic and violent and this carried over to how he controlled his brush. Picasso's history with women is evident in how he portrays them in his work! For me this information is what we need to consider when we look at artists work and have dialogues about these people. Pretending these traits don't exist isn't productive at all. And if we're not talking about these things, then I don't think we're being as insightful as we can be. The only line I really draw with this is in supporting people still alive who would benefit from support, (Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski etc).

With Gauguin his work being shown should foster discussion about the role of Polynesian women in his art and how it differs from how he treated them in real life. The role of the museum in these situations should be to understand these artists have baggage and contextualize this baggage rather than simply extolling them as meta-human genius. People often defend these sorts of acts by artists by saying no one is perfect. However, these same people often immortalize and defend these artists as if they are! We'll go to great lengths at times to defend these artists and their mistakes but we don't have to. Gauguin was a creep whose views of women of color are reflective of the colonialist views of the era, and an important post-impressionist who influenced much of modern art. We can better understand his art with this information in mind, and having discussion based on all of this.

The Infected said...

Well, I can't imagine attending a concert at the Kennedy Center...imagining all the while JFK's antics with underage girls in the White House pool.
Do you hear the lunacy of this when you travel down this road?

Chris Iliff said...

It's an interesting discussion. Should the work of the artist be considered separately to the artist themselves?

A recent example is the controversy around the 2019 Nobel Prize for literature which was awarded to Peter Handake -

Most of the artists we praise you wouldn't want coming round for dinner with your family. In Art and Fear they say "The flawless creature wound't need to make art", so we can't be surprised when the most flawed of us produce some of the most provocative art.

In the end, let's educate people about art not just sacrifice it to society's latest movement whims. Peace out.

Bill Marshall said...

"Most of the artists we praise you wouldn't want coming round for dinner with your family. In Art and Fear they say "The flawless creature wound't need to make art", so we can't be surprised when the most flawed of us produce some of the most provocative art.

In the end, let's educate people about art not just sacrifice it to society's latest movement whims."

Well said.

And welcome to the "call-out society" we live in today.


Unknown said...

I can almost guarantee that the land you live on was bought with blood. Your consumer goods were built with exploited labor, your taxes go to buy weapons, your car poisons the earth, your food was produced by torturing an animal, and a tree died so you can send that christmas card. If you refuse to do business with people with a history of morally questionable behavior, you are soon going to find yourself alone on a Pacific island yourself.