Grappling with Gauguin’s Primitive Depictions at the Barnes Foundation

I first came across a Paul Gauguin painting at the Barnes Foundation. I was astounded to see Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian coastlines juxtaposed starkly against the peachy nudes of voluptuous English women and the intricate Dutch wrought-iron metalwork. In each gallery at the Barnes Foundation, his pieces leapt out of their frames — their vibrant color harmonies and flattened planes immediately caught my eyes. While numerous works from Gauguin’s vast ouvre are displayed at the Barnes Foundation, I was drawn to one — “Haere Pape.” In “Haere Pape,” Gauguin invites us into a picturesque scene of the Tahitian coastline — a young topless woman washes her vibrant cloths against a backdrop of native wildlife, rippling and reflective ocean water, and a shining azure sky. “Haere Pape” is one of many paintings Gauguin created in Tahiti after leaving Europe in search of an unsullied, natural paradise with fewer uptight social conventions.

When first gazing at the painting, the colors grabbed my attention. Gauguin repeats hues throughout “Haere Pape,” creating an echoing effect between the colors in the subject’s body and garb and the colors in the Tahitian environment. We see the deep midnight blue of the woman’s skirt — a traditional Tahitian pareo — as well as the rusty terracotta hue of her chest reflected in fur of the dog-like creature sipping by the shore. This same terracotta hue is also echoed in the dusty terrain as well as in the shimmering reflections in the water. In addition, Gauguin plays with the sunny yellow color, apparent in the woman’s floral pareo, the grassy hill, and the shoreline opposite of the subject. This color play draws our eyes in a meandering pattern, alternating between colors in the woman’s form and colors in the landscape.

Gauguin’s sweeping, organic outlines further set the painting apart from its surroundings in the gallery. Gauguin builds up the small hill of the shoreline in accordance with the shape of the Tahitian woman’s body. The curving, meandering lines of the small shrubs seem to outline the woman’s form, encapsulating her within the forest green foliage. After a few glances, I also noted that the shape of the woman’s bent right arm was echoed in the angular beachwood near her feet, and the reflection of the angular beachwood in the seawater mimics the position of the drinking dog as well as the branches of the shrubs in the distance. Gauguin creates a natural progression for the viewer to observe; our eyes are carefully led from the woman to nature and back again.

While stunning in appearance, the painting also alludes to Gauguin’s identity as a primitivizing and colonizing painter; while Gauguin’s aesthetic choices depict his subject as at ease with nature, his inaccurate proportions, painterly strokes, and use of primitivizing imagery render the scene as an evocation rather than a realistic, ethnographic depiction of Tahiti. As in many of his paintings, he glorifies and exaggerates her “natural” inclinations, highlighting his colonial lens. I found myself caught, dancing between the two intertwined narratives of lauded painter and primitizing painter. Furthermore, while Gauguin’s color and geometric choices highlight the harmony between the Tahitian woman and the Tahitian landscape, his odd proportions and apparent painterly strokes reminded me that “Haere Pape” is an evocation, a glorification rather than an ethnographic portrayal of Tahiti. Rather than craft a painting with hidden paint strokes and acute attention to detail like many others in the Barnes Foundation collection, Gauguin seems to highlight his painterly qualities; when viewing the painting in Room 6 at The Barnes Foundation, the application of the paint and the brushstrokes are immediately obvious.

Gauguin’s selection of imagery similarly hints at the primitizing nature of “Haere Pape” that I struggled with. Gauguin includes the Tahitian words “Haere Pape” in the bottom right hand corner of the painting. While the use of written language in a painting —I saw it in many others at the Barnes Foundation — may be common, the specific employment of the Tahitian language suggests Gauguin’s self-identification as “primitive.” His claim to the language in addition to the aforementioned heightened colors and schemative anatomy suggests that Gauguin may claim to be an islander himself. Even Gauguin’s choice of pose for the subject alludes to the primitizing nature of the painting. The subject appears to be holding an indiscernible object, possibly a drapery or a flower. Regardless of the identity of the object, the woman’s hands are clasped together in an almost prayerful gesture. In addition, the woman’s head rests in a bowed position; this choice of imagery constructs her as a pious, religious figure — a trope of colonialist thought.

After observing the hues, the outlines, the proportionality, and the imagery, I was left with a decision — whether to appreciate “Haere Pape” solely as an aesthetic masterpiece or whether to consider the colonial, primitivist ideologies that fueled its creation. Ultimately, I could not separate the painting from the personal and political constructs at play. While cultural appreciation in art is important, exaggeration and romanticization of cultures outside of the dominant culture is what ultimately perpetuates the myth of primitivity; this concept reaffirms the distinction between the “us” and the “them.” I left the Barnes Foundation with one important thought: Gauguin’s artistic endeavors in Tahiti serve as a reminder to look beyond the aesthetic choices of a painting and to instead critically analyze the ideologies at play. We must grapple with the myth of painters like Gauguin to shed light on the unchallenged power of Gauguin — and white male painters in general — to exploit indigenous identities and culture.

Today, the rise of the #MeToo movement provokes necessary dialogue about the intersection between the art world and sexual harassment. There have been calls to remove paintings by the Paul Gauguins of the world. Yet stripping museum of these artists would diminish these imperative conversations.We must make room to discuss the aesthetic qualities of paintings in conjunction with their history and their context.

Visit the Barnes Foundation at 2021 Benjamin Franklin Highway in Philadelphia to view “Haere Pape” and other Gauguin pieces.

Featured image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Elena Moore

Elena '21 is from San Francisco and plans to double major in art history and sociology/anthropology. Her favorite author is Elena Ferrante and one day she hopes to successfully finish a Saturday NY Times crossword puzzle.

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