Gauguin: Metamorphoses, Museum of Modern Art, New York – review

In all four iterations of Gauguin’s woodcut “Manao tupapau” (“Watched by the Spirit of the Dead”), a girl curls into a foetal position, trying wretchedly to ward off fear. Like a doomed animal, her nude body shrinks from the shadowy, sinister silhouette hovering in the darkness. In one variant, the hollow of the girl’s spine takes on an ominous, orange glow; in another, all the details of her anatomy bleed into a coiled black blob.

Gauguin: Metamorphoses, the Museum of Modern Art’s survey of the artist’s works on paper, deals rather clinically with this vignette of horror. Text panels refer to the girl as a “motif”, to her clenched body as a “figure”, and to her terror as a “theme” – one that Gauguin took up repeatedly in his prints and monotypes. The show homes in on his expressively carved lines, on the various ways in which he inked and wiped the woodblock to produce an assortment of almost theatrical effects. Gauguin, too, treated the girl as an abstraction. She resonated as a symbol of primitive beliefs, the power that superstitions hold over the simple psyche. She is beautiful and frail, haunted by sudden insights, a Tahitian Eve, shaken by the knowledge of evil.

But “Manao tupapau” is also a portrait of a specific girl named Tehamana, whose mother delivered her into the artist’s arms as if she were a gift basket of local fruit. “The old woman returned, followed by a tall young girl carrying a small parcel,” Gauguin recalled in Noa Noa, his book of autobiographical musings. “Through her excessively transparent dress of pink the gold skin of her shoulders could be seen. Two nipples thrust out firmly from her chest.” That was how a 13-year-old child became a middle-aged Frenchman’s “wife”.

When the book was published in 1901, Gauguin’s collaborator, Charles Morice, was uneasy about the girl’s age, and insisted that the artist insert a parenthetical note explaining that islanders matured more quickly than their western counterparts and that Tehamana’s age was “the equivalent of 18 or 20 in Europe”. Which hardly dilutes the basic creepiness of the relationship between an impoverished, submissive, frightened teenager and a domineering colonial. Paul Gauguin was a deceitful, self-pitying pederast and wife beater who was also a great artist. MoMA celebrates his unruly talent and glosses over his outrageous personality.

Gauguin made the woodcut of a folded-up Tehamana as an illustration for Noa Noa, which occupies a central position in MoMA’s show. And yet she herself vanishes in plain sight, turning into a grid of variations on a single fluid form. The text panels describe her in passing as Gaugin’s “young lover”, though they don’t mention exactly how young, or comment on what might be meant by love.

There’s something deeply disturbing about MoMA presenting aesthetic innovation in the blithe moral vacuum of a dimly lit gallery. That’s not prudery talking. The museum’s sanitising swab of formalism impoverishes Gauguin’s work, steeped as it is in fleshly brutality. But it also reduces art-making to a set of technical advances, cleansed of messy human motivations. Whenever another talented bad boy misbehaves, we are told to ignore his personal flaws, lest they ruin the seamless sheen of his imagination. We may tut-tut over Woody Allen’s or Roman Polanski’s taste for dewy partners, but we convince ourselves that their private lives have nothing to do with their funny, tragic, putatively honest and profound films.

In Gauguin’s case, though, sex and violence permeate the work of a savage and predatory man. To avert one’s eyes from the continuity between art and artist is to miss the drama of erotic dreams and visions in which the orgasmic and the spiritual intertwine.

The title of “Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses” exhorts women: “Be in love and you will be happy” or, possibly, “Make love and you will be happy” but the carving depicts a scene of sexual assault. A monster strongly resembling Gauguin drops from above, seizing the arm of a nude woman. She resists. A haggish figure with long red hair looks on in horror, pressing her own face between open palms. A fox glowers menacingly nearby, two golden, gash-like eyes flaring in its coal-black fur. The carving represents a dream or a vision, but its libidinous, hippie-dippy title belies the frightening urge to rape – one that scared the artist himself as much as it did his sexual partners. The panel predates Gauguin’s trip to Tahiti. He described it in an 1889 letter to his friend Van Gogh: “I’m bold enough to believe it’s the best thing I’ve done up to now as far as strength and balance are concerned (although the literary side of it seems crazy to many people).”

Gauguin recognised the symbiosis he had forged between brutishness and beauty: the way violence supercharged his imagery and his aggressive carving technique ennobled the sense of sordid threat. When he got to Tahiti he recycled some of the figures into woodcuts as he continued to probe the theme of rape. “Tefaruru” (“Here we make love”) depicts a couple having sex. A satyr-like man bends back the woman’s head in a painful contortion. She braces herself with one arm and pushes him away with the other.

Gauguin also updated the Old Masters’ scenes of bestial coupling in the story of the rape of Europa. In one woodcut from the “Vollard Suite”, Zeus seduces the unsuspecting beauty by appearing as a white bull: she straddles him and gently pats his flanks in the moment of tenderness before he carries her off. The history of western art is steeped in scenes of rape, but they tend to represent the act so lyrically that it becomes almost invisible. Gauguin wanted to bring back the viciousness buried beneath the Old Master treatment – to literalise his own fantasy: “I saw plenty of calm-eyed women,” he wrote in the margin of the Noa Noa manuscript. “I wanted them to be willing to be taken without a word. Taken brutally. In a way a longing to rape.”

The show does its subject a disservice by carefully replacing the loincloth that the curmudgeonly and priapic genius would have ripped right off again. Gauguin, who understood the art of provocation, made it his mission to bare the priggish pieties of French society and demolish its hypocrisy. MoMA seems not to take those sentiments seriously, but that’s only because the museum lacks the artist’s appalling honesty.

To June 8,

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