19. Not a nice man
Updated: Jun 23
When I was growing up in North Carolina, the worst thing that my grandmother could say about someone was that he was not a nice man. My grandmother was born and lived the better part of a century in Union County, where her family had settled in the 1700s. Her speech harked back to older times--words like quare, and peaked, a vocabulary that I learned as a young adult would earn me confused looks if I used them too far from my grandmother's kitchen table. Not being a nice man was worse, in the family parlance, than being a bad man, or a wicked man, or even a sinful man. Someone who was not a nice man was in a profound sense irredeemable. Not being nice covered, and included, a range of sins that stretched from kicking a dog to cheating on your spouse to being an unrepentant racist. It conveyed that not only was the person in question lacking any recognizable moral fiber, he was also someone that you wouldn't want in your house.
When my daughter went to college in Southern California, she took a course with a professor who had grown up Union County, North Carolina. The course was on human rights law. One afternoon in seminar, the class was discussing Pol Pot. The professor--a former college president, a lawyer, the author of many books and articles, a regular guest on news analysis programs that were looking for the voice of quiet authority--she said, in a voice that conveyed deepest and most disdainful judgement: He was not a nice man.
The worst phrase that this renowned legal scholar could come up with came from her childhood. It was to say that someone was not a nice man.
Yesterday I read this public letter of resignation written by a respected member of the museum field--someone who has done, and no doubt will continue to do, remarkable, creative, meaningful work. Andrea Montiel de Shuman resigned from the Detroit Institute of Arts in protest at repeated and prolonged mismanagement that had created "a contradictory, hostile, at times vicious and chaotic work environment that is no longer anchored in the visitor-centered practices that gave us our legacy." As an example, she chose the installation of two paintings by Paul Gauguin:
"The one example that is clearest in my mind is witnessing the violence of Spirit of the Dead Watching paired next to The Yellow Christ during the staff preview of the Humble and Human exhibition. A label accompanied the two paintings that barely acknowledged that the naked body on that purple bed was a 13-year-old indigenous girl named Tehamana. The label did not address that the artist sexually abused her, gave her syphilis, and colonized her home. When I saw the cross near Tehamana’s gaze of terror, I was immediately transported to the terror I experienced as a young girl after being molested by a worship leader. On that purple bed I no longer saw Tehamana, it was my naked body, exposed, and my colleagues were collectively watching."
Montiel de Shuman shared her concerns with her colleagues; she shared them with the museum's administrators. And she was told that this was her personal issue, and that Gauguin's depiction of the young Tahitian girl Tehamana was not something that the DIA would "censor." The exhibition went on; there were other complaints from visitors who were triggered by the installation. And in the last few weeks, Montiel de Shuman decided that she had had enough. She resigned.
Spirit of the Dead Watching is unsettling to anyone who--well, to anyone who's paying attention. Tehamana is barely more than a child. She's vulnerable and afraid. Those crossed ankles could break your heart, or send you out into the streets to set things on fire.
Gauguin traveled with a photograph of Manet's Olympia; he pinned it up on the wall of his hut in Tahiti. He studied it; he copied it. The painter Degas, who didn't care much for Gauguin himself, nevertheless bought Gauguin's Copy of Manet's Olympia in 1895 and owned it for the rest of his life. In the same 1895 sale, Spirit of the Dead Watching failed to find a purchaser.
Manet's Olympia, which was scandalous in its day, still manages to seem tame next to Gauguin's Spirit of the Dead Watching. The woman is an adult. Her level gaze meets the painter's eye. She is not afraid. Her black servant presents her an elaborate bouquet. The room is decorated with patterned wallpaper and richly colored draperies. The linens on which Olympia reclines are clean, the pillowcases hemmed in precise pleats. Olympia absentmindedly fingers the embroidery on an elegant fringed scarf. More accomplished art historians than I have had a lot to say about these two paintings together. Gauguin's fascination with the theme, and his reinterpretation of it in a colonial setting, could provide dissertation topics for generations yet unborn.
But that is not my concern here. Those scholars have nothing to fear from me.
My concern is this: had my grandmother ever seen this painting, or ever heard about the man who painted it--a man who left his wife and children in Denmark and sailed half way around the world, where he had a series of sexual relationships with women who were less than half his age, some of them barely adolescent, relationships which he relayed both on canvas and in words--she would have known what she thought.
Paul Gauguin was not a nice man. He wasn't Pol Pot, true. But even one terrified adolescent girl on a bed in an atmosphere heavy with sexuality and foreboding is enough.
Statues are coming down this summer. In the U.S. we are, many of us, reckoning with our history and culture in new and unsettling ways. Museums are trying to bushwhack a path through their history of white supremacy towards an equitable existence that we don't even have words for yet. I have been talking about this with my graduate students. We've been exploring what museums can and should and ought to do to make themselves more accessible, more equitable, more accountable to their communities. To help to create a more perfect union. I have no answers to those questions except to yield the floor to my youngers and betters, to those whose experiences are different than mine.
In the brave new world that my students are imagining, what will we say about Paul Gauguin? What will we do with his work? That's not a question I know how to answer.
What I do know how to do is write history. I believe that history for too long was written from too few perspectives. I believe that there are historical figures who have gotten a by from their chroniclers because their chroniclers could not empathize with Tehamana on the bed. Could not empathize with Clovis Gauguin. It's high time for Tehamana's story to come forward, for us to remember little smallpox-scarred Clovis. Re-contextualizing Gauguin's story so that he is more than a lone genius changing art history can help get us to the point of understanding why that's the story that's been told for a century. Who chose to tell the story that way? With what authority? And what was cropped out of the picture? What happens when we put it back?
This moment of questioning our history and its meaning is not a rupture. It is a re-looking, a re-examination of where we have come from in order to make choices about where we want to go. History can show us the choices that were made, and the choices that weren't. The voices that have been amplified and the voices that are still waiting in dusty or digitized archives to be heard.
The history of Flowers and Fruit reflects a specific historical world. That historical world can tell us more about the world we live in today. Paul Gauguin was not a nice man, but his art is now worth millions, tens of millions, of dollars. His work is the subject of major museum exhibitions. How did that happen? When did he go from being a deadbeat to being a misunderstood genius? Perhaps if we understand something about the choices that brought Spirit of the Dead Watching to hang in the gallery of a prestigious museum--even in the knowledge that the installation was distressing to a cross-section of the museum's community--perhaps that will give us courage to make different choices, to tell different stories, to honor different voices.
And now, back to Pont-Aven.