A Self-Dramaturge, That Rotten Gauguin Was a Great Painter

Like so much else in contemporary cultural life, the romance of the exotic has become a casualty of its own success. The engines of modern travel, publicity and consumption have so radically eroded our ignorance of faraway places and alien cultures that it sometimes seems as if there’s no place left on earth where we can expect to encounter something that has not already been made familiar to us in books, films, pictures, museum exhibitions, glossy travel guides and endless journalistic travelogues. Even the heavens and what used to be called outer space have been robbed of their old mysteries by the oddly combined exploits of science and the entertainment media.

Far from sating our appetite for revisiting the history of unfamiliar cultures and primitive customs, our familiarity with the exotic seems only to increase its appeal. For whether we search for the exotic in art, in politics or in tales of adventure, it serves as a compelling, pleasurable and sometimes edifying escape from the moral burdens and social routines of modern life. So much so, in fact, that a yearning for the exotic has become one of the spiritual staples of modern life.

No figure in modern cultural history more vividly symbolizes this yearning for the exotic than the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his life-especially in his life-as well as in his art, Gauguin is now permanently established as an icon of modern exoticism. No matter how familiar his life story may be-the archetypal story of the painter “who left his family and a career in finance to live like a native on an island in the South Seas,” as a wall text at the Met reminds us yet again-it continues to command attention, respect and, in some quarters, even envy from a public that would never dream of attempting such a radical departure from bourgeois convention. We go to museums instead.

And not only in this country, of course. On a visit to Amsterdam earlier this year, I managed to get to see the blockbuster called Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South at the Van Gogh Museum by standing in line for half an hour before the museum opened at 9 o’clock. I had not seen the show when it first opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Dutch friend told me that it was only in the first hour or two on Sunday mornings that the exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum would be viewable without masses of people in attendance. It proved to be a splendid exhibition, marred only by the inclusion of a number of inferior Van Goghs-which are not as scarce as you might think. It was my impression, anyway, that the Gauguins were more carefully selected than the Van Goghs.

Even at that early hour on a Sunday morning, however, the galleries were quickly filled with visitors, but for the most part they conducted themselves with an air of piety and decorum very different from what we are used to at blockbuster exhibitions in New York: no incessant chatter, no elbows in the ribs, no jockeying for position. At times, indeed, I felt as if I were in the midst of a Sunday-morning service. Which, in some respects, I was, with the martyred Van Gogh and the fabled Gauguin functioning in lieu of divinities that no longer command such eager and unalloyed reverence. And it was not only the achievements of painting that were now the objects of worship in this temple of art, but the narrative of an artists’ Calvary, with its legendary psychodrama of friendship, rivalry, paranoia, betrayal and tragedy.

The exhibition that Colta Ives and Susan Alyson Stein have now organized at the Met in Gauguin in New York Collections: The Lure of the Exotic cannot lay claim to the kind of dramaturgy that gave the Studio of the South show its intense psychological focus. Yet in Gauguin’s case, even without the presence of a heavyweight antagonist like Van Gogh, there’s no shortage of the biographical histrionics that add so much personal mythology to our aesthetic interest in his art.

Gauguin was from the outset the dramaturge of his own fate. He spared no one, not even himself, in his fierce determination to realize his dream of a morally unfettered life in the service of his own artistic glory. What a mercy for us that he was as great an artist as he was (at his best, anyway), for in every other respect Gauguin was a fairly disgusting character. It’s hardly a wonder that when he decided to leave Tahiti in 1901, two years before his death, for the more rugged island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, scarcely anyone had a good word to say for him. He remained a misfit-and at times a figure of derision and contempt-even in the earthly paradise where he created some of his greatest work.

As its title suggests, Gauguin in New York Collections is not a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s oeuvre . It’s entirely drawn from museums and private collections in New York State. No doubt there will somewhere be a Gauguin blockbuster, as well as a flurry of new publications and other celebrations of the artist, to mark the centenary of his death in 2003. For Gauguin enthusiasts, however, there’s more than enough in the current show to keep them going. Virtually every phase of Gauguin’s development as a painter is well represented, and there are more works on paper and more examples of Gauguin’s sculpture than we usually get to see. And added to all this, there are the Gauguin paintings in still another current show at the Met: The Age of Impressionism: European Paintings from the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen -among them, the very beautiful Blue Tree Trunks, Arles (1888). And the splendid catalog for Gauguin in New York Collections provides us with what may be the best single guide to Gauguin’s life and work. I note with interest, by the way, that for this catalog the subtitle of the exhibition, The Lure of the Exotic, has been elevated to the title itself-another sign, if we still need one, that the romance of the exotic remains a highly marketable commodity.

Gauguin in New York Collections remains on view at the Met through Oct. 20.