Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (2023)

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Baltimore Museum of Art/National Gallery


Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (1)

Von Holly WilliamsOctober 21, 2019

Paul Gauguin's portraits painted in Tahiti "extended the parameters of portraiture" but became exotic for the western market. Now, modern artists are undermining that legacy.


The background of the portraits is Tahiti. Those depicted are feminine, sensual, offering ripe fruit and wearing flower garlands. The colors are vivid: tropical yellow, pink, mango orange and cobalt blue.

This description applies to some of the paintings in a new exhibition,Portraits of Gauguin at National Gallery. Surprisingly, it's the first major show to focus on portraits of Paul Gauguin, astonishingly bizarre as they often are, full of symbolism, narrative, bizarre juxtapositions and frankly unflattering angles.

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But that description also fits a series of photographs by Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba that are part of the inaugural exhibition at Boogie Wall, a new London gallery dedicated to women artists. justifiedIllusions: the vahine myth through gender dysphoria, Leuba's series of photographic portraits echoes the color palette of Gauguin's most famous works, but subverts stereotypical images of exotic, eroticized Polynesian women (Women) through the use of transgender caregivers.

"Gauguin's depictions of Tahiti have largely become, in an art historical sense, the standard visual legacy of Tahiti that emphasized a sense of 'otherness,'" says Leuba, who splits his time between Europe and Polynesia. . "In Gauguin's colonial depictions, Polynesian women were beautiful and submissive." She wants his work to "represent an ideological challenge to the visual codes developed by Gauguin and his quest for the 'primitive'".

Gauguin was accused of plundering the traditions of other cultures for "exotic" imagery

Gauguin's portrayals of Tahiti and later the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific have certainly long been controversial: while there is something heady, exuberant and strange about their colors and compositions, the works also embody a stark attitude. The French artist (1848-1903) first went to Tahiti in 1891, abandoned his family and had sex with girls he said were as young as 13, many of whom contracted syphilis.

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (3)

The Ancestors of Tehamana by Paul Gauguin (1893) - the hieroglyphs in the background of this portrait make no sense

National Gallery co-curator Christopher Riopelle says that "Gauguin radically expanded the parameters of portraiture," in part through this blending of aspects of traditional Western portraiture with overt celebrations of indigenous Polynesian culture. But he has also been accused of simply invading the traditions of other cultures in search of "exotic" imagery to make his paintings of a fanciful version of Tahiti more apparent to wealthy Parisians. Gauguin played fast and loose with his mystical and primitivist imagery: the hieroglyphs in the background of The Ancestors of Tehamana, for example, make no sense, while several deities in his paintings were copied from photographs of statues of Indonesian and Indian gods.

Separation of art from the artist

And can we be willing to overlook an artist's predatory sexual behavior when looking at his paintings of young women? To be honest, 2019 doesn't look good. Art critic Alistair Sooke used the show as an opportunity to describe Gauguin as a"19th Century Harvey Weinstein"(although he gave it five stars anyway). But maybe there's no winner for the gallery here: The Guardian criticaccusedthe healers of cowardice, because it actually shows very little of Gauguin's explicit sexual acts, thus deflecting discomfort and debate. Most of his paintings, which show young Polynesians in the exhibition, are covered in high-necked, brightly colored dresses introduced by Christian missionaries.

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (4)

Namsa Leuba wanted to recreate images of Polynesian women in art.

Leuba isn't condemning the show, but he certainly wants to open up the conversation about how Gauguin's work speaks to us and how a Western artistic tradition has influenced our view of Polynesian culture.

“For myIllusionseries, I took Gauguin's color palette and mise-en-scène and used them to reframe the image of Polynesian women in art, pushing the boundaries of binary gender representations and creating a powerful portrait of indigenous womanhood. Polynesia," Leuba told BBC Culture. . But while photographs of her use familiar symbols—the fruit, the flowers, the colors—the images also have a soft, glossy, hyper-real quality.

Instead of exoticizing the dark skin of the models (as Gauguin may have done), Leuba takes a more surreal approach: her models are painted with very light body paint in warm, tropical colors. Literal body painting reminds the viewer how Western art has painted bodies on canvas as "exotic" and "different". By blurring the lines between myth and reality in her images, she hopes to "question the reality of primitivist representations and narratives produced by the Western eye and art history".

And by painting her transgender models a bold, vibrant purple or pink, Leuba also underscores the similar artificiality of the accepted limited narratives told about Polynesian women, or indeed about women in general. what is femininity; How has this been traditionally coded and denoted in art, and who can paint themselves like that?

the third gender

Indeed, in Tahitian society there has long been an established place and role for a third gender, the male-female. Leuba's subjects were biologically male at birth but now identify as female or represent femininity in various ways. Generally, in Tahiti, they fall under two terms:excited, an effeminate man, andrae-rae, a transgender woman.

excitedthey all have the masculinity of a man and the sensibility of a woman. They have existed since the beginning of time and have always been a part of Polynesian society and culture,” explains Leuba. “When the missionaries arrived in Tahiti,excitedThey were arrested and not accepted by Christian society. But luckily things have changed and in today's society they are accepted as they are. ManyexcitedThey are dancers and performers and she found working with them "a culturally rich and joyous experience".

Gauguin himself portrayed androgynous figures in his paintings.

"The difference betweenrae-raejexcitedemerged around the 1960s, when transgender people had the opportunity to transform and change,” says Lueba.excitedare considered an integral part of Maori traditionrae-raeThey are generally less accepted in Tahiti.rae-raeare seen more as the equivalent of western drag queens and, in contrast, have closer ties to homosexualityexcitedwho identify more with femininity and "sweetness".

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (6)

Working with Māhū was "a culturally rich and joyous experience" for Leuba.

Leuba wanted to work with the models to "reframe ideas of sexualized Tahitian women to reclaim their identity and empower themselves". But she's not the first artist to look up to her.excited. Gauguin himself portrayed androgynous figures in his paintings; It has been suggested that the "man" in Homem Marquesano de Capa Vermelha, a painting featured in the portrait show, may have been inspired byexcited, like the ambiguous figure of Pape Moi. Likewise, the central figure of his masterpiece Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? has been claimed by some art historians asexcited.

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (7)

Portrait of Tahiatua Maraetefau by Kehinde Wiley (2019) – Wiley posed his Māhū models in commemoration of Gauguin

In fact, I felt that the possible images of GauguinexcitedThey also became eroticized, which caused another contemporary visual artist to gain weight.excitedas your subject. Earlier this year, Kehinde Wiley, Obama's official portraitist, held an exhibition in Paris entitled Tahiti. showed pictures ofexcitedpainted on brightly patterned backgrounds, in poses reminiscent of Gauguin's works, but with a direct gaze and a lot of attitude added.

Wiley has made a career of innovative portraiture that uses Western artistic traditions to celebrate and status people of color, portraying them in Old Master style through a revisionist lens. But Wiley's aim with Tahiti was "to reference and confront the famous works of Paul Gauguin... laden with historical overtones of colonialism and sexual objectification."

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (8)

Portrait of Shelby Hunter by Kehinde Wiley (2019) – Wiley uses Western artistic traditions to celebrate and empower people of color

Can we appreciate the "good" work of "bad" people?

However, he didn't just knock out Gauguin: that would be trite, the artist said.artnetAt the time, he added that he felt his job was to "introduce some sort of novelty into this bankrupt vocabulary". Portraits of him, like Leuba's, were created in collaboration and in conversation with him.exciteddepicted to give them personal discretion in their own presentation, creating "anti-poses" to Gauguin's well-known tales. Some opt for traditional clothing and elaborate feather coverings; Some favorite red lace mini dresses.

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (9)

The Royal End by Paul Gauguin (1892) - Gauguin's paintings have a very masculine and very colonial look.

Who can make art about whom and whether we can still appreciate the “good” work of “bad” people are questions that are being asked today with increasing regularity, urgency and irritation. It can be hard to simply revel in the warmth and color of Gauguin's Polynesian portraits today, when you know what we're doing with him. SheSohnstrange and beautiful images, artistically questioning but also exploring. And it's impossible to look at it without feeling uncomfortable with the work's very masculine, very colonial gaze.

Gauguin's "Strange, Beautiful, and Inquiring" Portraits (10)

Gauguin's Polynesian Portraits Are Strange, Beautiful, and Exploring

And unlike Wiley's portraits, we cannot look Gauguin's models in the eye: there is something deeply unsettling in the calm, averted, averted expressions of women, whose gaze repeatedly escapes us. Is this the artist/sexual predator's wish fulfillment, an image of idealized, languid female passivity and cultural serenity? Is it a reflection of your helplessness? Or could it be defiance, a glassy, ​​protective look you'll never really know? Well, we'll never know either.

Perhaps a solution to the discomfort around the continued celebration of work that now feels so problematic is to multiply the narratives we tell elsewhere to ensure we offer new perspectives, rather than dismissing them altogether or trying to hide the uncomfortable parts. A different lens and a different look. It is therefore particularly encouraging that Leuba's work is featured in an art gallery dedicated to women. Both his photographs and Wiley's paintings invite the viewer to take a closer look and wonder if the stories and stereotypes we've become accustomed to are just illusions.

Illusions – The Myth of Vahine Through Gender Dysphoria is part of the collective sampleNotre Dame / Our Lady at the Boogie Walluntil October 27, 2019.
Gauguin's portraits are in the National Galleryuntil January 26, 2020.

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