By reading Paul Gauguin’s fictionalized travelogue, noa noa, one would be forgiven for thinking that he fell on the idyll of an artist when he arrived in Tahiti in 1891. “All the joys, animal and human, of a free life, he writes, are mine. Once a successful stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin told the French newspaper The Echo of Paris before leaving for Tahiti that he rejected “the stifling influence of civilization” to devote himself to art and pleasure. Despite his disappointment with how French colonial rule had corrupted the island, Gauguin’s fascination with Polynesian culture and what he called its “primitivism” characterizes much of his best-known work. His dedication to his artistic vision at all costs – his quest for creative heaven – has continued to intrigue us well into the 21st century. As Gauguin himself predicted, he became more of a myth than a man.
Less appealing, however, is his documented proclivity for young girls who served as his lovers and frequent subjects of his work. In his 1892 painting Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the dead gazing), a naked girl lies on her stomach, staring at the viewer, exposed and seemingly terrified. Gauguin’s biographers commonly state that her name was Teha’amana; she would be 13 when Gauguin pursued her, eventually giving her syphilis and impregnating her. More than 100 years later, in 2017, Louis Vuitton used lovely land, featuring a nude girl – probably Teha’amana – as the design for a collection of luxury handbags. That same year, Gauguin’s drawings of Polynesian women and girls were animated and projected onto the facade of the Grand Palais, in Paris, beaming to passers-by.
Daisy Lafarge’s first novel, Paul, addresses a recurring question in a unique way: how, in the era of the #MeToo movement, should we interact with the work of men like Paul Gauguin? Superficially, Paul seems to be in line with recent novels that deal with emotional and sexual abuse – notably Megan Nolan’s acts of desperation and Kate Elizabeth Russell my dark vanessa––focusing on a vulnerable young woman’s relationship with an abusive man and extrapolating the nuances of that relationship as broader indications of modern misogyny. But Paul does something more complex: Larfarge uses the decidedly contemporary story of a traumatized graduate on her European gap year to boldly reinterpret Gauguin’s life and legacy. By reconstituting one of the giants of the artistic canon as an irredeemable villain, the novel makes it impossible to separate art and artist. The titular character, Paul, an evocation of Gauguin, is so clearly reprehensible that one is forced to condemn him – and therefore Gauguin himself, by extension. What, Paul asks us, is the artist’s work so fundamentally valuable that we continue to see it, sell it, and celebrate it more than a century later?
Transposed to the 21st century, Paul de Lafarge is the boorish, middle-aged owner of Noa Noa, a Pyrenean organic farm (named after Gauguin’s book). The narrator, Frances, a shy woman with a degree in medieval history who was fired from her job as a research assistant in Paris, finds the farmhouse on a job exchange site. She arrives at Noa Noa, which quickly turns out to be more of a town than a place of work. Soon Paul demands that she come to bed, and over time his treatment escalates into psychological and sexual manipulation. The situation pushes an already fragile Frances to the point of involuntary silence, a silence reminiscent of Gauguin’s voiceless, painted subjects. Like his namesake, Paul spent a lot of time in Tahiti, where he claims to have found true artistic freedom. Paul also used the people of Tahiti as muses – photographing where Gauguin painted – and sees the country only as the exotic backdrop for his journey of self-discovery. And the book implies that, like Gauguin, Paul had sex with young girls, which he excuses on the basis of a “cultural difference” in Tahiti that allowed him to engage in exploitation. children without consequences.
Where Paul deviates from reality lies in its deliberate refusal to explain its behavior on the basis of the brilliance. Lafarge denies Paul the defense of artistic merit that so often absolves toxic creative types. His Paul is not a brilliant artist; he is pathetic, failing. But while his behavior may immediately repel readers, Frances is so in need of guidance and security that it takes her a lot longer to come to terms with who he really is. This slow process of making guides the novel and is often enacted in viewing scenes, drawing a parallel to the act of looking at a work of art.
In a passage near the end of the book, Frances watches as Paul stares longingly at a group of preteen girls. Later, faced with indisputable evidence of her predatory pedophilia, she explodes. “It’s so hard to watch,” she thought to herself. “So hard to look away.” In this question––look, or look away?–Paul asks us to consider what we actually see in paintings as Spirit of the dead gazing. Frances’ unease becomes ours, blurring fiction and reality until it’s impossible to think of Gauguin without the hideous specter of Paul.
In the novel, censoring the two men might be an obvious reflex, but in the real world it’s much heavier. “The person, I can totally abhor and detest, but work is work,” former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí said of Gauguin. Viewers might wonder: what harm can it do to look at a painting when the subject and the artist are both long dead? But the decision to exhibit Gauguin’s art is a conscious choice – and museums in recent times have taken to exposing the artist’s behavior. The same goes for the decision to consume one’s work. Lafarge, through Frances’ struggle to truly see Paul as he is, positions the act of witnessing – so often labeled as passive – as an act of complicity. His inaction about Paul’s behavior comes across as almost acceptance, allowing Paul to continue to delude himself that he is “a good man.” Faced with Gauguin’s work, you are asked to make a calculation: is the pleasure of observing it worth the effort of making it?
As the novel draws to a close, Paul takes Frances on an impromptu road trip to visit a series of his friends, most of whom seem ambivalent about him. “If I were a woman, a man told her, I would keep my distance. In another scene, Paul pressures Frances to perform oral sex on him in a child’s bed, which obviously pisses him off. Increasingly suspicious of Paul, Frances finally confronts him about his time in Tahiti. As expected, he begins to cry. “I’m not a bad man,” he said, begging for understanding. But Frances refuses. Instead, as they return to Noa Noa, she jumps out of her car and buys a ticket to Paris.
It’s not entirely satisfactory as a resolution – Paul receives no meaningful compensation. But wisely, Lafarge leaves open the central question of the novel. Should we look or should we look away? In Frances’ escape, Lafarge seems to be landing on the latter option. But there is another possibility, I think.
Earlier this year, the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, exhibited a series of paintings by Gauguin juxtaposed with the work of artists attempting to reckon with his legacy. In one room, Gauguin’s paintings and prints were placed in front of a live video art piece by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer, titled Why are you angry?which was created in response to Gauguin No te aha oe riri. Dressed in the same clothes and posing in the same positions as the subjects in this painting, the girls in the video stared at you as you passed. You could see their bodies moving, their breathing, their human contractions. The line between person and figure has blurred; you couldn’t contemplate the masterful brushwork of Gauguin’s paintings without being aware of the eyes of the girls on your back. You turned around. Time is up. They were still watching you, meeting your gaze with theirs.