If you strolled down Fifth Avenue last fall, you might have noticed a ten-story-tall nude figure, a reproduction of Paul Gauguin’s “Delightful Land,” covering the façade of Louis Vuitton’s flagship NYC location. On one side of the building, the sinuous line of a girl’s naked torso plays across the artwork, 50 feet long. Extending a slim arm, the girl presents an unblemished flower to the viewer. Verdant foliage presses around her in an Eden-like scrim. Amid the condensed humanity of midtown Manhattan, the girl stands above it all, offering equal measures of sexual innocence and pleasure
The ten-story mural was advertising a high-art collaboration between artist Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton. Gauguin’s artwork joined a number of other western masterpieces chosen by Koons to be reproduced on purses in the lead-up to the holiday gift-giving season.
But most Fifth Avenue shoppers might not realize that our Louis Vuitton cover girl is likely Teha’amana, a 13-year-old Tahitian whom Paul Gauguin described as his “little mistress with the instinctive ways and the golden body.” Teha’amana was Gauguin’s first sexual partner when he moved to the islands at the age of 43. Coughing up blood from advanced venereal disease, Gauguin came to Tahiti from France after the pressures of supporting a wife and five children had grown too burdensome. The islands, he expected, would be an inspiring world of cheap living and unconfined sexuality.
In reality, the island’s social and religious landscape had been long-shaped by Christian missions. The “delightful land” he expected to find was nonexistent—a more common sight would be Tahitian girls in neck-high dresses on their way to bible study. Yet Gauguin still managed to take three “brides,” aged 13, 14, and 15, and create a body of work detailing a mythical world of sexual availability, more fantasy than reality. Ancient Tahitian culture, as Gauguin imagined it, was defined by the “less civilized woman”—which, in the words of art historian Patty O’Brien, meant “searching for partners with less sexual experience; thus he conflated the ‘primitive’ with ‘the child.’” The nude portraits of his child brides remain some of Gauguin’s most celebrated work.
But in our time, can we turn a blind eye to Gauguin’s well-documented history of predation? Avoidance turns out to be the rule, not the exception, when dealing with Gauguin. The repackaging of an abused girl as a luxury purse betrays a failure by cultural institutions to address the questionable legacies of brilliant artists.
Two extreme poles of reaction dominate the current conversation surrounding Gauguin and other historical figures with unsavory pasts. At one extreme, revisionists try to enforce a sanitized, “correct” version of history. They discredit the significant legacy of Thomas Jefferson on account of his treatment of the enslaved, and Winston Churchill for propagating colonialism. The other end of the spectrum, populated by many art institutions, would rather whitewash the behavior of famous artists in fear that addressing their sins would be to take ownership of their actions.
Jean-Pierre Faye observed that both political extremes often favor similar authoritarian solutions, just as the iron ends of a horseshoe bend towards each other. As with politics, so with culture: both ends of the spectrum gravitate towards a reductive approach that subordinates complex realities in favor of a simplified narrative. Revisionists and whitewashers alike would prefer that history be shaped into a “correct” version through the omission of unalterable facts and a heavy dose of the conjunction “or.”
An important middle ground exists, simply by choosing “and” rather than “or.” Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and gifted us with the greatest charter of liberty. Paul Gauguin was a luminous artist and he physically and sexually abused girls. As a society and culture, we can celebrate their contributions while acknowledging their moral faults.
By embracing the unadulterated truth about the behavior of past celebrated artists, museums can protect their collections from the encroaching revisionist trends that have claimed other academic spaces, where intellectual discomfort is now seen as an infringement on the rights of the individual. Institutions can deflect attempts to carve out a “correct” cultural history – by reflecting that history, warts and all. Discussions of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings should address his predatory sexual impulses as a creative influence. So long as museums present sanitized versions of their artists over the messy truth, they are leaving a target on their backs for anyone determined to assert the primacy of a single interpretation.
Good Art, Bad Person
As a society, we’re most comfortable condemning art when its message is overtly harmful and broadly violates established social norms. We can easily dismiss artwork created for propagandistic ends—thick-legged Soviet beauties and Leni Riefenstahl’s footage of Nazi rallies—as historic artifact.
Cruel art is easy to condemn, but good art by cruel people is a different matter. In such cases, we often feel absolved from judgment. Discussions of Richard Wagner’s symphonies or Woody Allen’s films, if they touch on their personal transgressions at all, normally conclude “But can’t you separate the art from the artist?”—the cultured equivalent of a shrug. And indeed, one can watch a Woody Allen film without becoming a sexual predator; listen to Wagner without becoming an anti-Semite; and view Gauguin’s artwork without establishing a Tahitian sex colony. Good artwork by bad people does not necessarily bring a transference of moral bankruptcy. So how, then, are we to judge and view classic works of art by predatory artists?
Let us stipulate that the best art, regardless of its creator, is indeed uplifting. An artist can harvest the raw materials of emotion and present it back to the viewer as something finer. But the pure power of art can sometimes lead us to ignore when it is put to shameful ends, or emerges from foul beginnings.
With his wealth of talent, Gauguin makes it easy to buy into the myth of seduction rather than the reality of predation. Much like the blushing mangos that his nudes often present to the viewer, Gauguin offers his sexual fantasy for the viewer’s delectation. We are encouraged to see his “little mistress,” guileless and seductive in equal measure, in an exotic setting that absolves us of any further need to reconcile fantasy with reality. The girl isn’t, say, studying for her 7th grade biology test. We are uncomfortable with the notion that we might respect the output of a brilliant child molester, so we distance ourselves from the conflicting behaviors.
Museums, our appointed guardians of culture, are even more vulnerable to the seduction of a great artist than individuals. Cultural organizations proud of their progressive social impact often fall victim to institutional self-censorship. Professionals tasked with presenting reality omit uncomfortable truths under the pressure of institutional preservation. When artistic beauty is born from abusive deeds, we see cracks widening in museums’ mandate to both champion truth-telling and promote art for its beneficial effects on society. Gauguin’s sexual manipulation of children is well documented. His passion for young, inexperienced sexual partners was a driving force behind his creativity, and a violation of social norms then and now.
Morality, The Ultimate Taboo
While Chuck Close, James Levine, and other contemporary artists have fallen from favor due to predatory actions, concerns about morality seem reserved only for the living. It has become taboo to suggest that human decency or ethical behavior should factor into our enjoyment of classic art. Mention “morality” and you’ll be accused of fostering a future where priggish curators administer ideological purity tests. But this need not be a matter of hunting the art world’s Hester Prynnes. It is rather about weighing an artwork’s real-world context in equal measure to the respect traditionally paid to an artist’s creative vision.
“The status of beauty as an ultimate value is questionable,” Sir Roger Scruton writes in Beauty, “in the way that the status of truth and goodness are not.” The notion of objective moral values took a blow in the 19th century when Romanticism asserted the primacy of the individual’s emotional experience. The notion of art for art’s sake, coined by French dramatist Théophile Gautier, claimed that moral concerns defile the pureness of creative expression. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, which could be considered a sourcebook for Gauguin and the other symbolists, includes the passage “Que tu viennes du ciel ou de l’enfer, qu’importe, Ô Beauté!”: “Whether you come from heaven or hell, what does it matter, O Beauty!” For Gauguin, who desperately wanted his life to feed his art and vice versa, the line served as a guiding philosophy.
Lest we have any uncertainty about Gauguin, we can turn to his own words. On the topic of “The Tahitian Woman,” Gauguin wrote that she “lives almost as do animals. . .like she-cats, she bites when in heat and claws as if coition were painful. She asks to be raped.” In another excerpt that won’t be making its way to an exhibition poster anytime soon, Gauguin notes that “giving her a good beating every week [makes her] obey a little. She thinks very poorly of the lover who does not beat her.”1 It would be difficult to find starker terms of abuse. However tempting it is to judge Gauguin on purely aesthetic terms, we cannot ignore this historical context, and the human cost of his artwork.
It’s the oldest lesson in the book, dating back to a plucked apple: beauty is deceiving. But when beauty is contingent on the abuse of other people, it’s unethical. If that beauty is then embraced uncritically by cultural and commercial institutions, it becomes a matter of public concern.
At the Museum
Art institutions are expected to be more socially engaged, more culturally inclusive, more profoundly life-changing than ever before. As social welfare causes become increasingly popular with grant makers, arts organizations are working harder to ground their missions in social improvement. In the past, a museum’s mission was rather obvious—to preserve and promote art for its inherent cultural value. Today, museums compete against literacy initiatives and pre-K education centers in the battle for funding. And they do so by promoting art, and personal creativity, as the handmaiden to greater truths.
But this shifting mandate is placing a set of new expectations on our canon, with the dead masters assigned roles they cannot fulfill. When an artist’s lifestyle contradicts a museum’s mandate of promoting social good, museum professionals are there to smooth things over, covering up past misdeeds with a combination of self-censorship, euphemism, and omission.
On a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art, I staked out the ten Gauguin artworks on display, from carved wooden totems to the iconic Tahitian nudes. At the entrance to the post-impressionist gallery, the first sentence of a wall panel states: “Too often, the personal histories of Van Gogh and Gauguin have obscured the intensity, vision, and discipline that propelled them. . .” Like a lawyer defending his client, we are reminded not to let these histories “obscure” the collective good achieved by the artists. For the curious visitor, no additional details are forthcoming through wall text, website, or audio guide—we can merely guess what actions are alluded to in Gauguin’s “darkly enigmatic” work.
The Museum of Modern Art’s characterization of Gauguin is also rich with euphemism: “Seized by wanderlust, Paul Gauguin sought to abandon the European life. . . in favor of one in tune with nature and free of the constraints of Western social mores.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through their well-respected Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, eschews any personal references to the Tahitian relationships. In a blog post titled “Getting Beyond Gauguin’s Girls,” a female curator at the Tate addresses the thorny issue thusly: “What is the main thing we generally know about Gauguin? That he did paintings of Tahiti and that he had Tahitian mistresses. So let’s get that out of the way first. . .But I reckon that he was a far more interesting and complicated character than most of us think.” Given the choice to focus attention on Gauguin’s creative vision or questionable behavior, most curators opt for the former.
Museums deceive visitors when they leave out uncomfortable, but relevant, information about their artists. These cultural scions are the authoritative “institutions of record,” where artistic legacies are written in stone and polished by scholars. The impact of a museum’s characterization of an artist echoes through traveling exhibitions, critical reviews, academic literature, and auction house pricing. By scrubbing clean an artist’s biography, curators misshape the public’s understanding of the artist, while minimizing abuses and furthering the “genius saint” myth.2
Even when supported by significant endowments, most institutions rely on corporations and foundations to underwrite major exhibitions. In these circumstances, the corporate social responsibility officers at any major company will prioritize sponsorship opportunities that frame the corporation’s involvement as a conscientious member of the community. These factors place an unspoken, yet influential, pressure on how a museum’s curators and staff frame the narratives surrounding the artwork.
The road to self-censorship is paved with good intentions and policed by risk-averse nonprofit culture. Any truly uncomfortable material will be minimized to reduce chances of public controversy, corporate sponsors withdrawing support, and unhappy board members. No corporate sponsor would get near an exhibit of artwork by a stockbroker who abandoned his family to paint unclothed 13-year-olds. But an exhibit of vibrant artwork by a celebrated artist is a tempting proposition. The unsavory characteristics can be relegated to the back of a $60 exhibition catalogue.
In the question of whether we can separate the art from the artist, in some instances, we never knew the artist to begin with. Being the definitive authority comes with a curatorial imperative to be forthright about the factors that influence an artist’s craft. And there’s an institutional imperative, when entrusted with the public’s confidence, to be honest about the work in its collection. Sidestepping Gauguin’s sexual abuse allows major institutions to continue hosting his work, critics to continue writing uncritical reviews, and commercial entities, like Jeff Koons in his collaboration with Louis Vuitton, to skirt questions of good taste and ethical conduct.
Warts And All
The solution may be to embrace two contradictory facets of the art experience—to acknowledge that while our experience with the artwork is subjective, the artwork itself is the product of unequivocal actions. The distinction lies in addressing an artist’s acts, versus an audience’s interpretation of the subject on display. Museums should (and often do) function as arbiters of truth, presenting the biographical facts of an artist and how those details are reflected in the art. In the current censorship-heavy climate, however, curators are being pressured to adjudicate not just cultural value (their professional domain), but the audience’s corresponding response.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently came under fire for displaying the artwork of Balthus, the Polish-French modernist known for his sexually suggestive painting of pubescent girls. In a petition, activists demanded that the artwork be removed or that wall text be added stating “some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.” The Met rightfully resisted efforts on both fronts. Either approach outlined in the petition would prioritize one audience’s subjective experience over the unequivocal facts of the artwork—that, to our knowledge, Balthus did not act indecently towards minors. The installment of “trigger warnings” would be the domination of a single perspective over fact, and would enforce a very specific interpretation, at that: either find the artwork “offensive or disturbing,” or run afoul of socially mandated expectations.
“To acknowledge [art’s] power entails the obligation to examine how that power is exercised,” Jacques Barzun noted 43 years ago while giving the prestigious A. W. Mellon lecture series at the National Gallery of Art. In an environment where activists are seeking targets to censor, Gauguin presents an ethical blind spot for museums. The failure of institutions to address the discordant reality behind Gauguin’s artwork reveals why more moral introspection, not less, is needed to navigate our current moment of cultural revisionism. As Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton exploited Gauguin’s girls, so do museums when they display the Tahitian canvases without context. Give us the entire, messy truth of the creative process and the imperfect creators behind it.
1Gauguin’s quotes are drawn from Henri Dorra’s “The Symbolism of Paul Gauguin: Erotica, Exotica, and the Great Dilemmas of Humanity,” [Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007, 214-15] which cites the source as preeminent biographer Maurice Malingue’s “La Vie Prodigeuse de Gauguin” [Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1987, 228-69].
2Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve across an entire collection, and many of the institutions that mishandle Gauguin should be lauded for their handling of related situations, such as the National Gallery of Art’s decision to cancel an upcoming Chuck Close exhibition, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s inclusion of Michelangelo’s relationships with younger male apprentices in their recent exhibition of his drawings.