Arts Opinion

Gauguin's paedophilic legacy raises debate over exhibit

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One of Paul Gauguin's self portraits (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A major exhibit of Paul Gauguin's works at the National Gallery is stirring controversy based on the artist's history of child sexual abuse. Rosemary Sorensen reports.

WHEN PRIME MINISTER Anthony Albanese did the honours at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s blockbuster Paul Gauguin exhibition which opened on 29 June, he noted the artist’s legacy was not easy, but (said the man who ousted a senator for not toeing the party line) he is “an opponent of cancel culture”. On with the show.

What the PM said in the opening speech about the need to place Gauguin in historical context was backed up by director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Nick Mitzevich.

As reported by the ABC, Mitzevich said:

“Like many artists, [Gauguin] comes with a complicated history and that complexity needs to be explored.”

This particular artist’s “complicated history” includes what art critic Sasha Grishin, writing in The Conversation, succinctly calls vile paedophilia.

Grishin lets Gauguin himself tell us how he saw the 13 and 14-year-old girls he abused in Tahiti, writing in a memoir about the first one:

... she bites when in heat and claws as if coition were painful. She asks to be raped.


... giving her a good beating every week [makes her] obey a little. She thinks very poorly of the lover who does not beat her.

This “legacy”, as it’s being called coyly by some commentators, is not “controversial” at all. It’s awful, and Grishin asks the question about whether it’s okay for the work of such an artist to be exhibited with such reverence, even if it is contextualised with discussions about – and cultural artefacts from – Polynesia.

Grishin writes:

‘I do not know the answer to this question, but feel uncomfortable in an atmosphere where so much dismay is expressed concerning domestic violence in Australia to be simultaneously celebrating an artist for whom violence against women was part of his everyday life.’

Apparently, the ABC reporter felt no such discomfort. Faithfully quoting the words of the exhibition’s curator, former Louvre director Henri Loyrette, that Gauguin ‘immersed himself into the “civilisations” he ventured into’, the reporter makes passing reference only to ‘controversial behaviours’.

An editor’s note attached to the end of the article suggests that even this was an after-thought:

‘An earlier version of this story did not go into detail about the controversy surrounding Paul Gauguin. It has now been amended to provide further context.’

This is the second time in as many months that the NGA is hosting controversial artworks, the first being Vincent Namatjira’s much-debated portrait of Gina Rinehart. That one prompted many people to have a go at art criticism and in doing so, brought the work of the artist a great deal of attention. Swimmers and other supporters called for the painting to be removed on account of Rinehart not liking it.

For this exhibition, the NGA was well-prepared for controversy and does appear to have headed off anticipated concerns by running an installation that ‘celebrates artists from the Pacific region’, and by bringing a Polynesian delegation to the opening.

The intention, you’d surmise, is to give belated voice to the subjects of Gauguin’s paintings — at least to their ancestors, the originals long gone (and possibly a few of them rather young, due to the effects of the syphilis with which Gauguin likely infected them).

If, as the NGA states, ‘Gauguin’s life and art have increasingly and appropriately been debated’ because ‘in today’s context, Gauguin’s interactions in Polynesia in the later part of the 19th Century would not be accepted and are recognised as such’, there’s still much commentary that proves otherwise.

The 2017 French film Gauguin: A Voyage to Tahiti focuses on the girl who was the first and youngest of his relationships, suggesting not only that she enjoyed his attentions but also cared for him and has a resident French doctor approve of the arrangement, calling her a “primitive Eve”, a “Tahitian Venus”.

Gauguin’s works sell for millions of dollars and while he is a little less adored than the A-team of French late 19th and early 20th-century artists, the name still shouts “blockbuster”.

Grishin doesn’t hold back in his praise for the quality of the art, saying Gauguin had ‘that rare ability to reinvent the medium with which he engaged’. This is particularly in reference to woodcuts and carvings, but also the ‘colour-saturated, sun-drenched images of French Polynesia’ — like the exhibition’s hero painting (used to promote the show), two women sitting on the ground, indolent but wary, difficult to decipher.  

Writing for Arts Hub, Gina Fairley repeats Loyrette’s contention (which seems at odds with what was quoted by the ABC) that we’ve been reading the Tahitian works wrongly, because ‘Gauguin didn’t care so much about Tahiti per se... he was interested in mood and the painting as a stage for an attitude, rather than a place’. What Gauguin wanted was to ‘exaggerate the subjects’ “exoticism” and European market appeal’.

If that makes one like Gauguin even less, here’s Fairley’s description of the last room in the exhibition, which shows Gauguin’s final works, created from 1901 to 1903, as he was dying of syphilis on the Marquesas Islands:

‘Loyrette makes the point that, while a mythology of poverty has followed Gauguin, he was actually the richest person on the island — thanks to his art sales back in Paris. He built his Maison du Jouir, had staff and threw parties.’

Jouir means both to enjoy and to have an orgasm.

In The Art Newspaper, Elizabeth Fortescue circles that question Grishin is asking about whether Gauguin deserves such a lavish and undoubtedly beautiful exhibition. She quotes Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where the exhibition will travel when it closes here in October.

Fortescue writes:

‘His position is that art museums are not the keepers of public morals. In adopting a rigidly dismissive stance, scholars and the public lose a chance to gain a nuanced understanding of earlier times and other places.’

Frankly, that’s fudging. While it’s fair for him to point out that art and culture do, all too often, get attacked by morality police, that’s not the case here. Using words such as “nuanced” deflects from the awfulness of the behaviour, as though it was simply what was considered acceptable, so we shouldn’t judge by contemporary standards.

Grishin debunks that:

‘Many of his paintings create a fantasy world of a “primitive” Polynesia he really neither saw nor experienced, but imagined, with scantily clad submissive very young girls in exotic native huts with pagan deities in the background, which he copied from photographs of gods from India and Indonesia.’

Grishin also points out that some artists, such as the Torres Strait Islander Dennis Nona, who was gaoled for sexual assault, are most emphatically “cancelled” (their art is removed from gallery walls).

Grishin writes:

‘It could be argued Nona’s art in no way reflected the crimes for which he was convicted. In the case of Gauguin, his criminal lifestyle lies at the very core of his art.’

That’s the point.

No matter how much nuance, no matter how elegantly the “bad man, but great art” argument is propounded, no matter how much context is provided, there they are — those lush, drooling paintings, hanging isolated on sombre grey walls, in the hushed reverence of Australia’s grandest, most prestigious, most admired gallery.

There are worse things going on right now than a hugely expensive exhibition of the work of a creepy artist taking up the time, effort and space of Australia’s National Gallery. It is, however, unworthy of that excellent institution and a bit of a shame.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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