Not quite male

BY SARAH WHITFIELD GAUGUIN'S SKIRT by Stephen F Eisenman Thames and Hudson pounds 19.95

No painter makes art historians quiver with indignation as much as Gauguin. For a number of recent writers, he represents the archetypal white male artist; that is to say, a misogynist, a colonialist, a racist, a plagiarist, and a syphilitic paedophile. His friends saw him differently. Stephen Eisenman quotes the description of Gauguin left by the writer Charles Morice: "When he smiled Gauguin astonished one with the unexpected revelation of a naive and almost childlike soul. But he rarely smiled, they were involuntary slips. Master of himself, the artist showed only the outward appearance of a great exotic lord - or else of an authentic aristocrat raised in the heart of lower Brittany by no less authentic peasants - or else of some tribal chieftain, miraculously spared tattooing, but surprised himself, at his European disguise." Gauguin's Smile might have been a better title than Gauguin's Skirt ( a reference to the native pareu won by the painter), for Eisenman is much less judgemental than recent writers on the subject, such as David Sweetman or Griselda Pollock, and allows Gauguin to emerge from his play-acting with his "naive and childlike soul" almost intact.

The book is as much about anthropology as art history, and Eisenman has a lot to say about the life Gauguin encountered when he got off the boat in Papeete in 1891. Gauguin might have expected the colonial authorities to look askance at his Buffalo Bill costume (they did) but what he probably did not expect was the laughter and jeers of the locals gathered on the pier. They jeered because they had never seen a man with long hair. "That very day," said a friend, "Gauguin was renamed taata vahine (man-woman)."

Eisenman is particularly interested in the role of the mahus, men who dress as women and do women's work; they are a third sex who exist outside the social categories of their own people. Gauguin, Eisenman argues, because of his long hair (which he quickly cut) and his "craftwork", together with his lack of a mutilated penis (which, we are told, leaves a scar in the form of an enormous rim of flesh) acquired in the eyes of the Tahitians a sexual indeterminacy that may have "permitted him a form of cultural intercourse - and therefore also a chance for rich and compelling artistic engagement - that few male colonials were ever granted". This is an astute observation.

There is plenty of evidence in Gauguin's writings for his own interest in androgyny, beginning with his letter to the 16-year-old sister of the painter Emile Bernard, in which he advises her to regard herself as without sex if she wants to be someone who will find happiness "solely in your independence and your conscience". There is the famous passage in Noa Noa in which Gauguin describes his friendship with a young, "faultlessly handsome" Tahitian male, and the journey they take into the forest, which turns into a sort of spiritual quest. On the draft manuscript of Noa Noa Gauguin added some thoughts on the "androgynous side of the savage", their ignorance of vice, and last of all, "the desire to be for a moment weak, woman." Eisenman discusses this story at length, but after he has made what is perhaps his most interesting suggestion on how Gauguin treats the "third sex" in his paintings. Taking as his example two very late works, Bathers and Marquesan Man in a Red Cape, both of 1902, the author shows how taken together as a pair (they are identical in size) they describe "the composite nature of the Polynesian mahu". The main figure in each is a long-haired male, one of whom wears a belted tunic underneath a cloak, while the other, who has the suggestion of breasts, wears a loincloth over a pareu.

Eisenman's tolerance, however, bends under the strain of Mana'o tupapa'u, Gauguin's masterpiece of that first visit to Tahiti, here translated as The Specter Watches Over Her (usually known as The Spirit Of The Dead Watches Over Her). The painting shows a young girl lying naked on a bed in the pose of the classical sculpture, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (in the Louvre). This painting has, as Eisenman says, "invited the wrath of critics from its own day until now". But this does not stop him calling it "a hybrid artwork which undercuts the dimorphic paradigm of sexuality upon which European masculinism depends". The word Gauguin used to describe it was "chaste".

The point Eisenman misses is that Gauguin is a painter obsessed with making an art which was simple and pure. He understands that the walk into the forest with the young Tahitian male is the description of a purification ritual which builds up to Gauguin's renunciation of carnal desires and his cleansing plunge into the cool waters of a stream, but he cannot see that Mana'o tupapa'u is equally "purged" of sexual innuendo.

Returning home late one night, Gauguin opened the door and saw his young mistress, Teha'amana, belly down on the bed, staring up at him without recognition. "For a moment, I too felt a strange uncertainty. Her dread was contagious: it seemed to me that a phosphorescent light poured from her staring eyes. I had never seen her so lovely; above all, I had never seen her beauty so moving. And, in the half-shadow, which no doubt seethed with dangerous apparitions and ambiguous shapes, I feared to make the slightest movement, in case the child should be terrified out of her mind."

It seems odd that this celebrated account of the painting's genesis (even if it is cribbed from Balzac's Seraphita) is seldom taken at face value. It is, after all, an account by an artist of a moment in which he was stopped in his tracks by what he saw. Those are the moments that trigger great art.

The language may be borrowed (Gauguin knew that critics want the "whys and wherefores"), but the experience is his own. Eisenman is fairer to his subject than most, but even he cannot resist misinterpreting the art in order to make it reflect the salacious facts of the life. Eight years after Gauguin painted Mana'o tupapa'u, Pierre Bonnard, probably inspired by that very work, made his own version of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite. Nobody has yet described it as "a notoriously indecent painting". But then, Bonnard led a quiet and sober life.

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