Separating art from the artist

If you’re in a rut, move to Tahiti and take a string of child-mistresses. It worked for Gauguin.
Two Tahitian Women, 1899, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art 
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum took heat for a 1938 painting by Balthus, Thérese Dreaming. The painting is not overtly obscene, but Balthus had a sexual obsession with prepubescent girls. In light of that, Thérese’s panties are an art-history problem. Where should the line be drawn between censorship and veneration?
The Met also owns many paintings and prints by another Frenchman with a girl problem—Paul Gauguin. Excising Gauguin would be far more problematic. He profoundly influenced 20th century art.
Gauguin is most famous for traipsing off to Polynesia at the end of his colorful, fractious life. He wrote that he wanted to escape European civilization and ‘everything that is artificial and conventional,’ but his grand statements always had the whiff of dross about them. He had a family in Copenhagen whom he’d abandoned, and he expected to get rich in Tahiti.
Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), 1891, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
He arrived in Papeete in 1891. Instead of nubile, naked Tahitian girls, he found church-going ladies in Victorian dress. Moreover, it was full of expatriates and colonists and was expensive. Disappointed, he moved to a bamboo hut in Papeari.
Gauguin’s first Tahitian portrait was Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower), above. It’s neither exotic nor exploitative. Instead, it is investigatory. He studied her face, and he put her in the western dress that she really wore.
Back in Paris, Gauguin had read some Dutch texts written in the 1830s, about the Arioi. This was a Tahitian secret religious order. They practiced complete sexual freedom before marriage and aborted or murdered any babies that were conceived through these unions. They worshipped a war god named ‘Oro.
Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), 1892, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
If this sounds like a Marvel comic book, you recognize the basic tone of 19th century ethnographers. These stories were probably a farrago of lies, rumor and truth.
Gauguin was fascinated. He was free to invent the details, which meshed with his own self-promotional legend as a depraved sensualist and a martyr to his art.
Gauguin did twenty paintings and a dozen carvings over the following year. Nine were shown in Copenhagen. Gauguin was sufficiently optimistic to return home, although he was still broke. Moreover, he was already showing the signs of tertiary syphilis.
Paul Gauguin with his mistress Pahura (second from left) and another woman, who looks less than thrilled with his hand on her breast. Courtesy Daniel Blau.
Gauguin took three young native girls as vahines, or ‘wives’, during his Tahitian period. They were 13, 14, and 14 at the time. There’s no suggestion that they were unwilling.
He used them as models and to do the work of survival in a pre-industrial society. While Papeete was westernized, Papeari had no corner grocery store; its families fished, hunted and gathered breadfruit and bananas from the mountains.
But mostly, it was about sex. “He loved the whole idea of someone getting pregnant and showing the world that he still had it,” said art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews.
Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893, swanking around the Left Bank dressed in Polynesian costume and carrying on with a Malay teenager called Annah the Javanese. As usual, it rapidly went sour. He was broke and bitter. In 1895, artist Eugène Carrièrebought him a cheap, one-way ticket back to Polynesia.
Self portrait, 1903, Paul Gauguin, courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel
Gauguin spent the next six years living an apparently comfortable life in and around Papeete. His vahine during this period was Pahura, who was age 14 when she moved into his house. Later, he would accuse her of thievery, and rail at the colonial police for not taking him seriously.
In 1901, Gauguin moved to the Marquesas, complaining that Papeete had become too westernized. There he built a house called Maison du Jouir. That’s hard to translate, but “Love Shack” probably comes closest. His health continued to deteriorate. He became a regular user of morphine and laudanum. His lost paradise was falling victim to time. 
His vahine, Vaeoho, seven months pregnant, went home to Hekeanito bear his last child. She didn’t return. By December, 1902, he could no longer paint. He was found dead on the morning of May 8, 1903, by a neighbor. Tioka confirmed his death in the traditional manner, by chewing on his head in an effort to revive him.