Newsletter 547

Published July 8, 2024
Gauguin, 'Self-portrait with halo & snake' (1889). Unfortunately not in the Canberra show

It was reassuring that Albo turned up at the National Gallery last week to launch the Gauguin exhibition, considering his predecessor’s idea of a cultural experience was a night at the Rooty Hill Colosseum hooting for his favourite Christian rock band. As Gauguin’s World: Tōna Iho, Tōna Ao is arguably the most significant exhibition we’ill see in Australia this year, it was entirely appropriate that the PM should do the honours. There’s a lot that could be said about Gauguin, good and bad, but Albo contented himself wth the word “problematic”.

There will, of course, be others who see this exhibition as an excuse to parade their virtuous pretentions by telling us the artist was a colonalist, a misogynist and a sexual deviant. In most cases, I’d recommend Jesus’s excellent precept, that he who is without sin should throw the first stone. More pragmatically, there’s a good deal of ambiguity about Gauguin’s life in Tahiti and the Marqesas, and the Polynesian scholars who turned up for the opening and a seminar were not ill-disposed towards him.

He may have taken underage “wives”, but he certainly wasn’t the first to do so, and it’s not as if the Polynesians themselves observed strict rules about the age of consent. On the other hand, Gauguin made a real effort to live among the islanders, learn their language and customs, and defend them against the worst corruptions of the Church and the colonial administration. If Gauguin was a bad guy – and he delighted in playing that role – he was also a good guy.

What makes Gauguin so interesting is that he practiced what he preached. Instead of staying in Paris and getting his “primitivist” inspirations from the Musée de l’Homme, like Picasso and Braque, he went right to the source, believing that if one got the life right, the art would follow. If one looks back over his career, we see an artist who never stopped experimenting and extending himself. His colour is incredibly bold, his brushwork unfussy. For the most part he invested his Polynesian subjects with a rare dignity. Like Captain Cook before him, we need to take a very close look at Gauguin and his deeds before we definitively stamp him as a villain.

Alas, the trend among would-be intellectuals today is to simply cancel anybody who offends against a set of cast-iron, puritanical precepts, which usually means some dead white male gets punted for having the temerity to be reasonably wellknown. But even if these offenders are guilty on all counts, surely that’s all the more reason to study them rather than pretend they didn’t exist, or go looking for alternatives – which usually leads to the raising up and over-adulation of some artist who happened to be female,  black, queer, or some other sacred category, but may have made virtually no impression on the art of their time. Some of these ‘rediscoveries’, such as Hilma af Klint; the African American painter, Norman Lewis; or the composer, Florence Price, have been well worth the effort, but the bottom line should always rest with the quality of the work, and at this distance it’s much easier to make a call.

It shouldn’t be outrageous to say that many artists were neglected not because they were female or gay or black, but because they weren’t very good. One suspects that many contemporary artists currently enjoying 15 minutes of fame with their modish, politically charged work, will disappear with barely a trace as time marches on. Whole careers are sustained by curators, dealers, curators, critics and institutions, who commit wholeheartedly to some bit of fashionable junk they have convinced themselves is oh so “important”. Time will sort this out, just as it has confirmed Gauguin’s place in art history. He doesn’t have to be a role model, as his work speaks for itself. I’ll believe in the moral influence of cancel culture when the museums that own his masterpieces decide to sell them off or hide them away in the basement. That’s not going to happen so long as the general public, who don’t seem to share the delicate sensitivities of the politically correct few, will still pay to see these works. Where advanced morality meets a failing budget and declining attendances, something’s got to give.

Anyway, this is by way of introducing the Gauguin exhibition as the subject of this week’s art column. I won’t pre-empt anything by prolonging the discussion.

The film being reviewed is Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness – three stories of surpassing weirdness spread out over a little less than three hours. I think it’s supposed to be a comedy, although it presupposes a particularly twisted sense of humour. I’ve long believed we show a tolerance for excess and perversion in the movies that does not apply with the visual arts. Maybe this is because film is a perpetually moving artform that doesn’t allow time for prolonged contemplation. One hardly has time to be morally offended before another scene is unfolding. Or maybe it’s just that the connoisseurs of offence have well-developed double standards