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Myth Takers

Musée d’Orsay curator Stéphane Guégan talks about the modern unmaking of Paul Gauguin and why the colonial-era painter deserves a break.

I was 14 or 15 when I discovered Paul Gauguin’s painting and sculpture at the Musée du Jeu de Paume. The Jeu de Paume at that time was the impressionist and post-impressionist museum in Paris. Gauguin raised my interest in modern art and gave me the passion for paintings. The works I saw there are now in our collection at d’Orsay.

I think Gauguin is one of the most important and gifted painters of the 19th century. He was very important in the beginning of the 20th century in his influence on Picasso, Matisse, Degas. He was one who was seen as opening many paths. So, in terms of modern art, he is one of the best.

Gauguin’s life is very dramatic, even romantic. He thought of himself as a living myth. He wanted to enlarge the scope of his culture and his vision of the world and he remained very interested in what we call now “the Otherness.” I think his paintings, prints and drawings provide evidence of his intellectual and enthnographic interest in other cultures. It’s not just a matter of innovating in terms of aesthetic. It’s also for him a way of knowing other people’s culture and challenging the European vision of the world.

When I wrote a book on him, six or seven years ago, I tried to separate the truth of his life from the legend. Now I think some scholars have pushed it too far. They are trying to kill the myth of Gauguin.

Now scholars don’t trust him anymore. They think that Gauguin was just a selfish person, very brutal with women and very centered on himself. In a way I prefer the old beliefs about Gauguin over the new ones from the feminist and the post-colonial points of view. I am aware of the importance of the colonial context and the way he treated women, but sometimes a scholar will write about that and not be aware of the specific context of life in Paris or Tahiti during Gauguin’s time.

It’s just part of the story and we have to also tell the other, more exciting part: how to live in Tahiti when you are not a native, how to put these various sources of inspiration into harmony in your art.

That is the problem when you introduce moral issues into art history. In the end, you forget that you are dealing with a painter, with someone who used his imagination, with someone who has put his own experience into his painting. In the Seattle show we will have the chance to deal with the whole context of Gauguin’s Tahitian experience, which is the right thing to do. AS TOLD TO MARK BAUMGARTEN

Stéphane Guégan will speak at Seattle Art Museum on Thursday, Mar. 8, at 7 p.m.

Pictured above: “Reclining Tahitian Women (The Amusement of the Evil Spirit)” from Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, which runs at Seattle Art Museum Feb. 9–April 29.

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