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Tahitian Woman

Paul Gauguin

European Art

In 1890 Paul Gauguin wrote of his attraction to the French colony of Tahiti in a manner that exemplifies “primitivism,” European artists’ fascination with non-Western art and cultures, whose complexities they disregarded and which they saw as less developed and purer than their own: “I’ll flee to the woods on an island in Oceania, there to live on ecstasy, calm, and art. With a new family by my side, far from this European scramble for money. . . . There, in Tahiti, in the silence of the beautiful tropical nights, I will be able to listen to the soft murmuring music of the movements of my heart in amorous harmony with the mysterious beings around me.” A year later, he was disappointed to discover that Tahiti was not the pristine paradise of romantic literature and travelogues, observing that the indigenous community and its culture had lost their “ancient ways” and “poetry” because of French missionary activity.

Nevertheless, the artist created his own imaginary Tahiti, largely centered on the native women—and young girls—on whom he projected his own exotic and sensual fantasies. Works such as this pastel broke new artistic ground with their heightened, expressive color and bold forms and greatly influenced many twentieth-century modernists. At the same time, they reveal the disturbing sexual and racial dynamic of his objectifying gaze. This unidentified sitter is likely one of the girls (perhaps Tehamana) to whom Gauguin transmitted syphilis, which killed him at the age of fifty-four.

In 1921 Tahitian Woman was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in a landmark show of modern French paintings. When the Museum purchased it that year, it became one of the first Gauguins in a public American collection, reflecting this institution’s commitment to modern art at a time when it was still considered very daring.

Titus Kaphar: I don’t think that you scrub history of all the bad things that happened. I don’t think that’s an effective process, and I don’t think it’s an enlightening process. What is important is acknowledging it, telling the truth about it, and saying it unapologetically right now. These are no longer our values. We don’t accept this anymore as in the same way that it was then. Yes, you have technique. Yes, you understand color. Yes, you understand composition and form. Yes. All of that. Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what this symbolizes, what this represents, we as a society are beyond this now. If you are ambiguous about that statement, then you are complicit. That’s what I’m saying. There has to be a decision to not be complicit. That happens from being unambiguous about how you analyze the work, how you talk about the work in this moment, in this time. It’s going to upset some people. . . . The question is, How does this fit in our day in time, our society today?. . . If an artist made this today, what would we say about them? What would we think about them? The truth of the matter is, there are artists who are making work like this, who are getting passes, who we are not confronting.
MEDIUM Charcoal and pastel on paper, glued to yellow wove paper and mounted on grey millboard
  • Place Made: Europe
  • DATES ca. 1894
    DIMENSIONS 21 5/8 x 19 1/2in. (54.9 x 49.5cm) frame: 31 1/2 × 27 5/8 × 2 3/8 in. (80 × 70.2 × 6 cm)  (show scale)
    SIGNATURE Signed upper left: "PGO"
    COLLECTIONS European Art
    CREDIT LINE Museum Collection Fund
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CAPTION Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Woman, ca. 1894. Charcoal and pastel on paper, glued to yellow wove paper and mounted on grey millboard, 21 5/8 x 19 1/2in. (54.9 x 49.5cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 21.125 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 21.125_SL1.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 21.125_SL1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
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    RIGHTS STATEMENT No known copyright restrictions
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