If “Paul Gauguin: Maker of Myth” has a thesis, it is that in undoing the old Gauguin mythology, too much important information was taken off the table. But it is also arguing with the old “modernist” or formalist fetish for Gauguin, the sense (common in the history of music and literature as well) that the only thing that matters in art is the purely formal, the innovative, the interrelation with other art, not the reflection of the artist and his times.
Today, with artists once again interested in everything under the sun, especially themselves, we can rethink Gauguin in ways that make him seem terribly relevant to things such as the role of accident and chance in the creation of new forms and ideas, the fashioning of personal myths, the insertion of the artist into the art and the invention of post-modern fantasies that reach across cultural and historical lines.
The viewer is challenged to see paintings that represent the familiar but distorted view of Gauguin, such as “Two Tahitian Women,” from 1899, in the context of work that shows a far darker view of paradise. “Two Tahitian Women,” so familiar that you wonder whether it’s from the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Herman Melville, shows a pair of bare-breasted women, one holding a plate of flowers and directly facing the viewer with a vacant expression, while the other leans in slightly and engages sideways through the corners of her eyes. Around them, a dark forest and yellow sky is so roughly and flatly rendered it might be a giant carpet hanging in a studio.
Here, it would seem, is the paradise French men had been fantasizing about since Louis-Antoine de Bougainville visited Tahiti in the mid -18th century and returned with a romanticized vision of a simple society, filled with happy people, untroubled by civilization and its discontents.
Contrast that with “The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents,” painted in 1893, in which a young girl is seen in a striped dress and prim collar, with flowers in her hair and strange runes or characters on the wall behind her. Tehamana was one of Gauguin’s teenage mistresses, and the dress suggests the degree to which the brutal imprint of French colonial administration had “westernized” her. The strange characters on the wall and an Indian-looking statue to one side, however, have nothing to do with Tahiti but are borrowed from iconography and inscriptions from India and the Easter Islands.
Upon arriving in Tahiti, Gauguin came face-to-face with what he could have easily learned had he done his homework: There was no paradise left. French rule had spread prostitution, disease, alcoholism, ennui, despair and cultural decimation. So Gauguin invented his own paradise, borrowing from different cultures, fusing Christian elements with vague approximations of the vanishing Tahitian religion. And yet many of his images are as angry with the people of paradise for failing in their appointed role — stewards of the unsullied garden — as they are celebrations of a lost ideal.