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Paul Gauguin: The savage at the Alte Nationalgalerie

Paul Gauguin’s actions in French Polynesia stain his legacy. Is it possible to separate the art from the man?

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jörg P. Anders

The French artist Paul Gauguin lived on and off for the last 10 years of his life on the islands of Tahiti and Hiva Oa in a home he dubbed The House of Pleasure – a euphemism for brothel. There he started a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl, married two 14-year-olds with whom he fathered children, and knowingly gave them all syphilis.

Despite these shocking abuses of power, Gauguin remains one of the world’s most canonised artists, celebrated for his bold, colour-drenched paintings that exude lust and existential longing. A huge inspiration to Picasso and Matisse, his blend of mystical symbolism with observation opened up Western art to influences far beyond Europe.

I have two natures, the oversensitive and the savage. The sensitive one has disappeared enabling the savage to advance

But in a post-#metoo and Black Lives Matter world, the ruthless manner in which he pursued his exotic fantasies have led to calls to purge Gauguin’s works from museums, even to cancel him altogether. “Society has changed,” says Dr. Ralph Gleis, co-curator of the recently opened exhibition Paul Gauguin – Why Are You Angry? at the Alte Nationalgalerie. “Now we not only question his relationship with these young girls, but also see how deeply integrated he was in the colonialists’ erotic dreams of Tahiti.”

Gauguin, a bankrupt stockbroker, was a skilled but not particularly celebrated painter when he left his family and travelled to Tahiti in 1891. In a letter to his wife shortly before he left, he wrote: “You have to remember I have two natures, the oversensitive and the savage. The sensitive one has disappeared enabling the savage to advance, unimpeded.”

That myth of the savage artist was wholeheartedly embraced by Gauguin. Convinced of his own artistic talents, he rejected his bourgeois Parisian existence to experience what he imagined would be an authentic and primeval life in the South Seas. Once there, he began painting a fantasy world where the French colonial regime was nowhere to be seen – and where dark-skinned, bare-chested girls spent every waking hour lazing around on pristine yellow beaches.

Did Gauguin’s moral failings make the Alte Nationalgalerie think twice about putting on a show of this kind, particularly at a time when the legacy of colonialism is more heavily scrutinised than ever before? “It seems exactly the right time,” says Gleis. “From the point of view of the museum, we will continue to show Gauguin’s work alongside all viewpoints to deliver a good debate about it.”

To convey these other viewpoints, the museum has translated extracts from Gauguin’s Noa Noa journals: now visitors will view a painting like ‘A Tahitian Woman with a Flower in Her Hair’ (1891) while also reading Gauguin’s often-racist jibes about the sitter. In addition, the final part of the exhibition will be devoted to artists from the region such as Samoa-based Yuki Kihara, who will be engaging with Gauguin’s work and adding a contemporary perspective. Is it enough? “Well, we try to be open and include as many diverse aspects as possible, and not just be white curators,” says Gleis.

The art world is littered with male artists whose private lives are as repellent as that of Gauguin. The complicating factor in this case is that his sitters, his victims, are the very subject of his canvases – and so are inextricably bound up with his legacy.

Unravelling the life of the French artist is a difficult and unpleasant experience; his complicated legacy will continue to divide audiences. Is it even possible for the work’s artistic qualities to rise above the colonialist and sexual abuses of their creator? Gleis acknowledges that “for some people it will spoil the art”. But in the end, he says, “it is something everyone will have to answer for themselves.”

Paul Gauguin – Why Are You Angry? Through Jul 10 Alte Nationalgalerie