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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.