If you read Paul Gauguin’s fictional travelogue, Noa Noa, you’d be forgiven for thinking he had encountered an artist’s idyll when he arrived in Tahiti in 1891. “All the joys – animal and human – of a free life,” he wrote, “are mine.” Once a successful stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin told the French newspaper L’Echo de Paris before leaving for Tahiti, he rejected the stifling “influence of civilization” to devote himself to art and fun. Despite his disappointment at how much French colonial rule had affected 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 a creative paradise – has continued to fascinate us well into the 21st century. As Gauguin himself predicted, he has become more of a myth than a man.
Less appealing, however, is his documented propensity for the young girls who served as his lovers and frequent subjects of his work. In his painting from 1892 Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching), a naked girl lies on her stomach, staring at the viewer, on display and seemingly terrified. Gauguin’s biographers usually claim that her name was Teha’amana; she was reportedly 13 when Gauguin chased her, eventually giving her syphilis and getting her pregnant. More than 100 years later, in 2017, Louis Vuitton Lovely country, with a naked girl – probably Teha’amana – as the design for a luxury handbag collection. 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 at passers-by.
Daisy Lafarge’s debut novel, Paul, takes a unique approach to an ongoing question: how should we interact with the work of men like Paul Gauguin in the era of the #MeToo movement? Shallow, Paul seems to follow along the lines of recent novels about psychological and sexual violence—particularly those of Megan Nolan Acts of despair and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My dark Vanessa––by 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 thoroughly contemporary story of a traumatized graduate on her European gap year to boldly reinterpret Gauguin’s life and legacy. By recreating one of the giants of the artistic canon as an irredeemable villain, the novel makes it impossible to separate the art from the artist. The titular character, Paul, an evocation of Gauguin, is so clearly objectionable that we are forced to condemn him – and thus Gauguin himself, by extension. What, Paul asks us, is so fundamentally valuable about the artist’s work that we still view, sell and celebrate it more than a century later?
Transformed into the 21st century, Paul van Lafarge is the ungainly middle-aged owner of Noa Noa, an organic farm in the Pyrenees (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 farm on a job exchange website. She arrives at Noa Noa, which soon turns out to be more of a commune than a workplace. Soon, Paul asks her to come to bed, and over time, his treatment of her deteriorates into psychological and sexual manipulation. The situation drives an already fragile Frances to the point of involuntary muteness, a silence reminiscent of Gauguin’s voiceless painted subjects. Like his namesake, Paul has 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 – he photographed where Gauguin painted – and sees the country as nothing more than the exotic backdrop for his journey of self-discovery. And the book implies that, like Gauguin, Paul had sexual relations with young girls, which he apologizes for on the basis of a “cultural difference” in Tahiti that allowed him to engage in child exploitation without consequence.
Where Paul does deviate from reality is in his deliberate refusal to explain away his behavior on the basis of genius. Lafarge denies Paul’s defense of artistic merit that so often dismisses toxic creative types. Her Paul is not a brilliant artist; he is pathetic, fails. But while his behavior would immediately repel readers, Frances is so desperate for guidance and security that it takes much longer to come to terms with who he really is. This slow process of realization guides the novel and is often performed in observational scenes, drawing a parallel with viewing a work of art.
In a passage at the end of the book, Frances sees Paul staring lustfully at a group of preteen girls. Later, confronted with irrefutable evidence of his predatory pedophilia, she breaks out. “It’s so hard to watch,” she thinks to herself. “So hard to look away.” Within that question – to look or to look away?Paul asks us to think about what we really see in paintings like Watching Ghost of the Dead. Frances’ discomfort becomes ours, blurring fiction and fact until it’s impossible to think of Gauguin without Paul’s ugly ghost.
In the novel, it might be an obvious reflex to censor both men, but in the real world it’s much more loaded. “The person I can totally abhor and loathe, but the work is the work,” Vicente Todolí, former director of Tate Modern, said of Gauguin. Viewers may wonder: what harm can it do to look at a painting if the subject and the artist are both long dead? But the decision to exhibit Gauguin’s art is a conscious one – and museums have recently decided to expose the artist’s behavior. So does the decision to consume his work. Through Frances’ struggle to truly see Paul as he is, Lafarge positions the act of witnessing—so often characterized as passive—as an act of complicity. Her passivity in the face of Paul’s behavior is almost like acceptance, allowing Paul to fool himself that he is “a good man.” Confronted with Gauguin’s work, you are asked to make a calculation: is the pleasure of observing it worth the pain of production?
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 tells her, “I would keep my distance.” In another scene, Paul pressures Frances to have oral sex with him in a child’s bed, which makes her palpably nervous. Frances grows increasingly suspicious of Paul and eventually confronts him about his time in Tahiti. Predictably, he starts to cry. “I’m not a bad man,” he says, begging for understanding. But Frances refuses. Instead, as they drive back to Noa Noa, she jumps out of his car and buys a ticket to Paris.
It’s not entirely satisfactory as a solution – Paul doesn’t get any meaningful compensation. But wisely, Lafarge leaves open the novel’s central question. Should we look or should we look away? In Frances’ escape, Lafarge seems to end up with the last option. But there is another possibility, I think.
Earlier this year, the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin exhibited a series of paintings by Gauguin alongside the work of artists who tried to take his legacy into account. In one room, Gauguin’s paintings and etchings were juxtaposed against a live-action video artwork by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer entitled Why are you mad?which was created in response to Gauguin’s no too aha o riri. Dressed in the same clothes and posing in the same positions as the subjects of that painting, the girls in the video would stare at you as you passed by. You could see their bodies shifting, their breathing, their human shocks. The line between person and figure is blurred; you could not contemplate the masterful brushwork of Gauguin’s paintings without being aware of the girls’ eyes on your back. You turned around. Past time. They still looked at you and returned your gaze with their own.