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Features / June 20, 2019

What’s Missing from the World’s First Gauguin Portraits Exhibition?

National Gallery of Canada director admits more could be done to engage Indigenous artists and thinkers around this landmark show
Paul Gauguin, <em>Melancholic (Faaturuma)</em>, 1891. Oil on canvas, 94 x 68.3 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (38-5). Photo: Nelson-Atikins Media Services / Chris Bjuland and Joshua Ferdinand. Paul Gauguin, Melancholic (Faaturuma), 1891. Oil on canvas, 94 x 68.3 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (38-5). Photo: Nelson-Atikins Media Services / Chris Bjuland and Joshua Ferdinand.
Paul Gauguin, <em>Melancholic (Faaturuma)</em>, 1891. Oil on canvas, 94 x 68.3 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (38-5). Photo: Nelson-Atikins Media Services / Chris Bjuland and Joshua Ferdinand. Paul Gauguin, Melancholic (Faaturuma), 1891. Oil on canvas, 94 x 68.3 cm. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (38-5). Photo: Nelson-Atikins Media Services / Chris Bjuland and Joshua Ferdinand.

This spring, the National Gallery of Canada launched “Gauguin: Portraits,” the world’s first exhibition dedicated to portraits by the famous 19th-century French painter. Ottawa is the only North American city to host the exhibition, which brings together roughly 70 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other international museums. There are high-tech elements too—like a 3D-printed version of a Gauguin sculpture visitors can touch, and an ultra-HD screen for zooming in on details from the paintings.

A lot has been promised for “Gauguin: Portraits,” including, as guest curator Cornelia Homburg put it, evidence that the artist “came up with a truly new vision about what portraiture could mean.” Homburg, who is based in France, worked on the show for four years. It follows her 2012 NGC exhibition, “Van Gogh: Up Close,” which was the gallery’s most visited show in two decades—a blockbuster, to be sure. The National Gallery, London, and its Canadian-born curator Christopher Riopelle helped develop “Gauguin: Portraits” and will host it in the UK this fall.

But there’s something missing from “Gauguin: Portraits” in today’s Canadian context, where many museums are actively working on Truth and Reconciliation report recommendations—including the NGC itself, which recently integrated its Indigenous and Canadian collections and is launching the next edition of its international Indigenous quinquennial in November.

What’s missing from “Gauguin: Portraits”—at least from my perspective as a white settler Canadian arts writer reporting on our museum sector—are programs and contexts that include perspectives from the Indigenous Pacific peoples Gauguin depicted, or that critically address the problematic issue of Gauguin’s relationships with Tahitian girls as young as 13 years old. All this is especially necessary given that Gauguin’s paintings, and his legacy in European art history, have had an outsized impact in defining the Pacific region and its people to outsiders.

“I feel, in the absence of perspectives from Tahiti, from Samoa, from Hawaii, that these are the main images people will see [of that region],” says Léuli Eshrāghi, a Montreal-based Australian curator, critic and writer of Samoan, Persian and other ancestries. “They’re a problematic painter’s vision and exoticization and simplification and abstraction of who we never were. I feel like that’s a really dangerous thing.”

The National Gallery of Canada’s new CEO Sasha Suda, who is white settler Canadian and formerly a curator of European art, agrees that more should have been done to consider Indigenous perspectives in the exhibition.

“For me, being new here, it’s a missed opportunity not to explore the broader discourse as it connects to our really important Indigenous and Canadian initiatives,” says Suda when asked about this problem. “It’s an important learning for us right now.” Following the opening, Suda and her team changed some of wall texts, and added new ones, to address the Eurocentric biases in the exhibition. But there is still much to be done.

The interior to the entrance of the “Gauguin: Portraits” exhibition features two Indigenous figures from Gauguin’s painting <em>Barbarian Tales</em> (1902). The European man also pictured in the painting is cropped out. Photo: Leah Sandals. The interior to the entrance of the “Gauguin: Portraits” exhibition features two Indigenous figures from Gauguin’s painting Barbarian Tales (1902). The European man also pictured in the painting is cropped out. Photo: Leah Sandals.
Above the entrance to “Gauguin: Portraits” is a large banner featuring an Indigenous figure from <em>Merahi metua no Tehamana</em> (1893). Gauguin’s images of Indigenous women predominate in the National Gallery of Canada’s advertising of the exhibition. Photo: Leah Sandals. Above the entrance to “Gauguin: Portraits” is a large banner featuring an Indigenous figure from Merahi metua no Tehamana (1893). Gauguin’s images of Indigenous women predominate in the National Gallery of Canada’s advertising of the exhibition. Photo: Leah Sandals.

When I went to see “Gauguin: Portraits” in late May, I saw a well-installed and often thoughtful exhibition. But I still left with concerns.

The exhibition advances the idea that Gauguin used all his models—male and female, French and Tahitian alike, and even himself—as a means of augmenting his own personal mythology. The show is convincing in that respect: a room titled “Female Models” seems to suggest Gauguin applied the mother/“whore” and virgin/“whore” binaries to a wide range of female subjects—including his own mother.

But while the show underlines that Gauguin distorted all his models to his own aesthetic ends, it neglects the fact that the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, whose images circulate globally through the dominance of Gauguin’s fictional depictions, have been more deeply affected by his distortions. In other words, to imply that Gauguin’s social impact was fairly uniform simply because his aesthetic strategies were uniform is a dangerous equivocation, especially when the intended audience is a general public.

More disappointing, for me, was how the show amplifies some of those distortions to its own ends. At the entrance to the exhibition, the faces of two Indigenous people from Gauguin’s painting Barbarian Tales (1902) are enlarged as a huge mural. Cropped out is the face of Gauguin’s Dutch friend Meijer de Haan, who is also in that same painting. The NGC’s marketing strategy leverages Gauguin’s images of Indigenous women as a selling point or “wow factor”—much the same way such images are still used to sell luxury Gauguin-branded cruises of Tahiti and French Polynesia.

A few of the wall texts do acknowledge Gauguin’s relationships with 13- and 14-year-old Tahitian girls, but the most detailed statements I found around agency and power imbalances were in the least trafficked areas of the exhibition—the video and the catalogue. The video is in a double-doored room separate from the primary open flow of the “Gauguin: Portraits” exhibition space, and the catalogue is a largely academic text.

Since I visited, the NGC education staff has been re-editing the wall texts to be clearer about the colonial and patriarchal power dynamics, historically and at present, that enabled the Gauguin’s canonization. One new wall text discusses the offensive use of the word “savage” in one of the artwork titles, and acknowledges that, unlike some other museums or exhibitions, the NGC in “Gauguin: Portraits” chose not to adapt historical artwork titles into something more equitable. Another re-edited wall text, provided to me in mid-June via email, implies that Gauguin’s claim to Incan heritage is questionable given “his mother was actually Peruvian of European descent.”

A still from <em>First Impressions: Paul Gauguin</em> (2018) by Yuki Kihara. Five-part episodic talk-show series, HD video, 13 min. Commissioned by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen and Milford Galleries Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand. A still from First Impressions: Paul Gauguin (2018) by Yuki Kihara. Five-part episodic talk-show series, HD video, 13 min. Commissioned by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen and Milford Galleries Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand.

A different institutional approach to a Gauguin blockbuster can be seen right now at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. In parallel with “Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey,” the de Young commissioned Samoa-based artist Yuki Kihara, who is of Samoan and Japanese heritage, to make a new work, as well as appear on a panel and write a catalogue essay. Kihara’s resulting video, First Impressions: Gauguin (2018), shows a group of Samoans commenting on famous works by Gauguin. It’s humorous and pointed, and should bolster Kihara’s growing international reputation.

“Despite Gauguin’s popularity in the art world, no one in the Moana (Indigenous pan-Polynesian term for the ‘Pacific’) cares for who he is,” Kihara tells me via email. “However, his works produced in Tahiti and Marquesas Islands have today become a blanket stereotype of the Indigenous people and the region, presented as noble savages living in idyllic paradise ripe for Western consumption.”

Art institutions’ continued focus on Gauguin’s paintings, and the versions of Moana peoples he depicts, can also detract from crucial issues facing Indigenous peoples today.

“His paintings don’t speak of the Indigenous worldview but rather offer a romantic, orientalist view about us at a time when our islands across Moana are impacted by climate change due to excessive carbon emissions from countries that continue to stage blockbuster Gauguin exhibitions,” states Kihara. And these are often countries “where art audiences prefer to know more about the Moana from Gauguin compared to what the Indigenous Moana peoples have to say about it.”

Léuli Eshrāghi, who is a Horizon/Indigenous Futures Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University in Montreal, says he’s frustrated to see so many art institutions continue to devote significant resources to exhibitions of dead male European artists. “The more air time they get, the more their relevance is confirmed,” says Eshrāghi. And the fewer curatorial and financial resources there are, consequently, to support Indigenous artists working today: “It just really bothers me that in 2019 there are no Tahitian painters recognized anywhere near the level that Gauguin is.”

Eshrāghi wonders if Ottawa’s perceived distance from Gauguin’s time in the Pacific region is part of what made an exhibition like “Gauguin: Portraits” seem more plausible, at least at first, to the NGC. “I don’t want to be reactionary, but I think that maybe they didn’t think about the choices they were making,” says Eshrāghi. “I’m not saying [Gauguin] needs to be struck from the record…. But there’s so much art in the world not having attention put on it while money goes to enriching his estate and secondary-market value.”

Caroline Vercoe is a senior lecturer of art history at the University of Auckland, is a Samoan New Zealander and has written about contemporary Pacific artists responding to Gauguin. As a contemporary art historian and daughter of a Samoan mother, she has mixed feelings about Gauguin’s art and life. “Gauguin, to me, was always this kind of character who had a colonial, exploitative [view]—especially to women. I didn’t find him particularly engaging as someone I wanted to know.” But once she started studying him, she says, “I found him more compelling than I’d originally thought.”

Vercoe says Gauguin’s work is important, but so is contextualizing it correctly. “Gauguin seems to be the gift that keeps on giving for institutions in the way he’s being reevaluated over time,” Vercoe observes. “I think that reflects the capacity of Gauguin’s art practice to enable many kinds of dialogues. But I think, increasingly, it’s important not to have them couched as a dialogues within only a European-centric context.”

Paul Gauguin, <em>Self-Portrait with Idol</em>, c. 1893. Oil on canvas, 43.8 × 32.7 cm. McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay (1950.46). Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Idol, c. 1893. Oil on canvas, 43.8 × 32.7 cm. McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas. Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay (1950.46).
Paul Gauguin, <em>Woman of the Mango (Vahine no te vi)</em>, 1892. Oil on canvas, 73 × 45.1 cm. Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland (BMA 1950.213). Photo: Mitro Hood. Paul Gauguin, Woman of the Mango (Vahine no te vi), 1892. Oil on canvas, 73 × 45.1 cm. Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland (BMA 1950.213). Photo: Mitro Hood.

Reflecting on “Gauguin: Portraits,” I think it’s time to re-examine standard operating procedures for art historians, curators, guest curators and art institutions.

It’s not like the critiques this show needed to address are unheard of in popular culture. Last year, the biopic Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti, while poorly reviewed, prompted widespread writings around the ethical problems of presenting content on Gauguin. And last month, Black American artist Kehinde Wiley launched “Tahiti,” a Paris exhibition featuring collaborative portraits of Māhū Tahitians, all intended as critique of Gauguin’s portrayals.

When I started asking the National Gallery of Canada, months before the show’s opening, about how it would be addressing Gauguin’s problematic aspects, the guest curator Cornelia Homburg pointed to two events: one is a lecture by American art historian and catalogue co-author Elizabeth Childs on Gauguin and colonialism—a topic on which Childs has written and spoken widely. The other is a talk involving two younger Canadian Gauguin scholars, Kirsten Marples and Caroline Shields, on June 27.

All this is well and good, but none of those programs include Indigenous Pacific scholars. And Suda acknowledges this is a missed opportunity—particularly given that for decades art historians have been aware of Gauguin’s transgressions, and debated the ethics around exhibiting his art for as long.

“I’m really encouraged that today in Canada, in the context of the #MeToo movement and post–Truth and Reconciliation report and recommendations, that these topics are becoming part of a broader public discourse, and that they’re becoming topics our audience expects us to engage with,” says Suda. The recent re-editing of “Gauguin: Portraits” wall texts is one response to the difficulty of showing art that perpetuates a colonial legacy. Suda says: “We’ve done some programming that addresses these issues, and we’ll be thinking about more.”

Paul Gauguin, <em>Still Life with Profile of Laval</em>, 1886. Oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Gift of Mrs. Julian Bobbs in memory of William Ray Adams, 46.22, DiscoverNewfields.org (1998.167). Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886. Oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Gift of Mrs. Julian Bobbs in memory of William Ray Adams, 46.22, DiscoverNewfields.org (1998.167).
Paul Gauguin, <em>Portrait of Meijer de Haan</em>, 1889–90. Waxed distemper paint and metallic oil paint on oak, 58.4 × 29.8 × 22.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1968 (15310) Photo: NGC. Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Meijer de Haan, 1889–90. Waxed distemper paint and metallic oil paint on oak, 58.4 × 29.8 × 22.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 1968 (15310) Photo: NGC.

The NGC’s recent actions demonstrate that the administration is taking criticism and concern about showing Gauguin seriously. But I am still concerned that this exhibition—on portraiture, and the portrayal of people—came to fruition without a clear plan for addressing the problematic representation of Indigenous peoples and girls in Gauguin’s work, despite the NGC’s recent efforts toward foregrounding Indigenous art, and given the Canadian Museums Association’s avowed commitment, as recommended by the TRC, in working toward compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

If Canadian museums, the National Gallery of Canada included, are going to take an inclusive, more respectful, approach to working with Indigenous peoples, to producing exhibitions by Indigenous artists, and to exhibiting cultural artifacts from First Nations—not to mention work toward correcting the inherently colonial structure of museums in the West—it’s not just permanent collections and contemporary art that has to change: approaches to the “European-master” blockbusters need to shift too.

This article was corrected on June 20, 2019. The original copy erroneously stated that Yuki Kihara is based in New Zealand. In fact, New Zealand is only a transit point for the artist; Kihara has been based for many years in Samoa.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also news and special sections editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.