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Gauguin's Nude Tahitians Give The Wrong Impression

By the time Gauguin arrived in the late 1800s, Tahiti had been "thoroughly Christianized and colonized" by the French, says National Gallery curator Mary Morton. Women didn't walk around half-nude — but Gauguin painted them that way anyway. Above, an 1899 depiction of Two Tahitian Women. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A portion of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., has the look of a tropical paradise these days. A major exhibition of works by 19th century post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin includes oil paintings and other objects he created on the South Seas island of Tahiti. But the real Tahiti bore little resemblance to the one Gauguin depicted on his canvases.

In the 1870s, Gauguin, married with five children, was working as a stockbroker in Paris. He started collecting art, then began creating art, and thus began to rewrite his narrative.

"By the early 1880s he can no longer abide his life as a bourgeois gentleman, father, husband and Sunday painter. He needs to be an artist," explains Mary Morton, National Gallery curator. And so he travels to Polynesia, where apart from a few trips out, he stays for the rest of his life.

The paintings, wood carvings and ceramics he made in Tahiti are full of bare-breasted, native women — voluptuous, sensuous. Gauguin's 1899 painting Two Tahitian Women "could serve as a pinup in a tourist bureau," Morton says.

It's a glamorous vision, but a false one. The artist had hoped to find such exotic, half-clothed beauties — but did not.

"Tahiti was a French colony," Morton explains. "It had been thoroughly Christianized and colonized. The women were not walking around half-naked. ... They tended to be wearing ... Christian missionary gowns."

Still, on his canvases, Gauguin took off their clothes and bared their undressed beauty. In his 1892 work The Delightful Land, Gauguin depicts Tahitian Eve in the Garden of Eden. An exotic flower takes the place of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. A lizard with flaming red wings substitutes for for the Bible's serpent.

Over the centuries, hundreds of artists had rendered images of Eve. But their work reflected Western ideals of beauty — "white, small waist, small little feet, polished skin, no body hair," Morton says. Gauguin's Tahitian Eve, however, was different: "Broad shoulders, strong legs, pubic hair," Morton describes the image. "And then the most extraordinary thing about her — is her feet." Tahitian Eve has enormous feet — with seven toes on the left foot. That's how primitive she is, Gauguin seems to be saying.

It was all too much — the bizarre figures and the sunset oranges and fuchsias — for European tastes. When Gauguin brought 44 canvases back to a Paris gallery, only four of them sold. (Today, Gauguins go for tens of millions.)

"I am a savage," Gauguin wrote. "And civilized people suspect this."

And perhaps they were right to suspect him.

"He's a liar; he's a real liar," says Morton. Gauguin was a great artist. He wasn't Margaret Mead, carefully examining an island and its people.

"Gauguin was not an anthropologist," Morton says with a laugh. "He is using all of this as material for his own imaginative production."

The title of this exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (it was organized by the Tate Modern in London) is Gauguin: Maker of Myth. And that myth is crucial. When Gauguin's dreams of paradise collided with Tahiti's harsh realities, his imagination informed the body of his Tahitian creations.

"This is one of the problems with Gauguin's work," Morton says. "You know that he's making things up, but it's so seductive that you just have to reckon with it."

It's widely accepted that artists reinterpret reality, but the trouble is that Gauguin insisted that his depictions of island life were true — factual representations of a serene, sensual, primitive place. The French tourist industry was something of a co-conspirator in this; it wanted tourists to travel to the Polynesian colonies. And so it, too, underscored these images of lush, seductive destinations. These mass-marketed myths fed the fantasies of bored Europeans who were longing for something exotic, just out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

Eventually, Gauguin got bored with island life; he was poor and fell ill. He wrote to a friend to say that he was thinking of coming back to Paris — but his friend advised against it. You built your reputation as the exotic artist in exile at the edge of the Earth, the friend advised. If you come back old and decrepit, you'll wreck it. And so Gauguin remained on his remote island.

"He dies alone," Morton say, "sacrificing himself to this myth that he's constructed. It's just heartbreaking."

Gauguin: Maker of Myth will be on view at the National Gallery of Art through early June. It's a powerful show about a search for paradise and the revelations — for all of us — that emerge in that journey.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Right now a portion of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. has the look of a tropical paradise. A major exhibition of works by 19th century post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin includes oil paintings and other objects he created on the South Sea island of Tahiti.

But NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the real Tahiti was different from the one Gauguin depicted on his canvases.

(Soundbite of song, "Gauguin's Shoes"):

Mr. EDWARD KLEBAN (Ed and Company): (Singing) Were I in Gauguin's shoes, what would I have to lose? I would embrace the muse and even thank her.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Edward Kleban, the lyricist of "A Chorus Line," wrote this song about Gauguin.

(Soundbite of song, "Gauguin's Shoes"):

Mr. EDWARD KLEBAN (Ed and Company): (Singing) And I would choose whatever Gauguin chose, and walk around in only Gauguin's clothes. And I would go wherever Gauguin goes. He was a banker.

STAMBERG: Actually, a stockbroker in Paris in the 1870s; wife, five kids. Started collecting art, then started making art, then re-wrote his narrative.

Dr. MARY MORTON (Curator, French Paintings, National Gallery of Art): By the early 1880s he can no longer abide his life as a, you know, bourgeois gentleman father, husband, and Sunday painter. He needs to be an artist.

(Soundbite of song, "Gauguin's Shoes")

Mr. EDWARD KLEBAN (Ed and Company): (Singing) He just flew into a rage and suddenly left his wife and his kids. Ding-dong, for trouble in Tahiti. He wasn't he a sweetie?

STAMBERG: The paintings he made there - also wood carvings, ceramics - are full of bare-breasted Polynesian women - voluptuous, sensuous.

National Gallery curator Mary Morton picks one from 1899 called simply, "Two Tahitian Women."

Dr. MORTON: It could serve as a pinup in a tourist bureau for, you know: Come to Tahiti; beautiful, semi-naked women who will offer you flowers.

STAMBERG: Gorgeous, but false. Gauguin hoped to find such lush and exotic creatures in Tahiti, but did not.

Dr. MORTON: Tahiti was a French colony. Had been thoroughly Christianized and colonized. And the women were not walking around half-naked or naked. They tended to be wearing these Christian missionary gowns.

STAMBERG: Still, on his canvases, Gauguin took off their clothes and bared their undressed beauty.

Dr. MORTON: This is Tahitian Eve. She's standing in the Garden of Eden. But because there aren't a lot of apples around in Tahiti, she is not plucking an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. She's plucking this exotic flower.

STAMBERG: No slithering serpents there either. So instead, in that 1892 painting he calls "The Delightful Land," Gauguin puts a lizard with flaming red wings next to Eve's ear.

Now, think how many images artists have made of Eve over the centuries. In pretty much every one of them, she represents the Western beauty ideal of the day.

Dr. MORTON: White, small waist, small little feet, polished skin, no body hair.

STAMBERG: Very different from Gauguin's Eve. For one thing, the Tahitian Eve is a woman of color. And she's built differently.

Dr. MORTON: Broad shoulders and strong legs, pubic hair. And then the most extraordinary thing about her is her feet.

STAMBERG: They're big. And her left one has seven toes. That's how primitive she is, Gauguin seems to be saying. Which was all too much - the figures too bizarre, the colors; his sunset oranges and fuchsias - all of it, just too primitive for European tastes.

When he brought 44 canvases back to a Paris gallery, only four of them sold. Today, Gauguins go for tens of millions.

I am a savage, Gauguin wrote, and civilized people suspect this. Know what? They were right to suspect him.

Dr. MORTON: He's a liar. He's a real liar.

STAMBERG: Curator Mary Morton says the great artist was no trustworthy reporter. No Margaret Mead, examining an island and its people.

Dr. MORTON: Gauguin, not an anthropologist. No, not scientific. He's using all of this as material for his own imaginative production.

STAMBERG: The title of this National Gallery of Art show - it was organized by the Tate Modern in London, is "Gauguin: Maker of Myth." And it is the myth in these works that is crucial here. The myth, fabricated when Gauguin's dreams of paradise collided with Tahiti's harsh realities, that myth informs the body of his Tahitian creations.

Dr. MORTON: This is one of the problems with Gauguin's work is that, you know, that he's making things up, but it's so seductive that you just have to reckon with it.

STAMBERG: But what's so terrible about making things up? Don't all artists do that? They take something they see and they transform it into their vision of what they see.

Dr. MORTON: No, absolutely. I mean this is something that we accept absolutely now.

STAMBERG: But, says Mary Morton, here's the trouble: Gauguin said he was sending back true images of island life, factual representations of a serene, sensual, primitive place.

The French tourist industry was a kind of co-conspirator in this. They wanted tourists to travel to the Polynesian colonies. And so they, too, underscored these images of lush, seductive destinations.

Dr. MORTON: There are postcards. They've got dancers. They've got exhibits. This stuff is mass marketed by the 1890s, and Gauguin in a way is participating in that.

STAMBERG: All myths and, like most myths, so powerful. They fed the fantasies of bored Europeans, longing for something exotic, just out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.

Paul Gauguin eventually got bored with his island life, fell ill, was poor. He wrote a friend that he was thinking of coming back to Paris. Don't, said the friend, you built your reputation as the exotic artist in exile at the edge of the Earth. If you come back old and decrepit, you'll wreck it.

Dr. MORTON: And so he doesn't and he dies alone, sacrificing himself to this myth that he's constructed. And it's just heartbreaking.

STAMBERG: "Gauguin: Maker of Myth" is at the National Gallery of Art through early June. A moving, powerful show about a search for paradise and the revelations made for all of us in the course of that journey.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: Some glimpses of Gauguin's version of paradise may be seen at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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