GAUGUIN’S ‘NAFEA FAA IPOIPO’
Gauguin becomes the world’s new most valuable artist
And the new most expensive painting in the world now is: Gauguins’s When Will You Marry? (Or Nafea Faa Ipoipo, to give it the original Tahitian title which Gauguin bestowed on it, for authenticity)
This painting fetched $300 million (£197 million) when it was sold to a Qatar museum by its previous owner, a Swiss collector who had loaned it to an art museum. The sale beat the previous highest-ever price set recently by a painting by Cezanne (The Card Players) which sold for £158 million, also to Qatar. It was painted in 1892 during the first of Gauguin’s trips to the island, having left behind his previous life as a stockbroker and also his wife Mette and their five children. In Tahiti, he took three young brides, one of thirteen and two of fourteen years of age.
Gauguin’s talents were so well not recognised in his own time – he struggled to sell his Tahitian works and died of a heart attack after struggling with alcohol and contracting Syphilis. The unspoilt ‘primative’ sexual idyll that he’d hoped to find in the South Seas was one that he rather had to invent, finding Tahiti more developed and Westernised than he has anticipated. To an extent however this painting which references the tensions between the old and newer ways of life (one woman wears traditional Tahitian clothes and the other a Western dress). The flower worn behind the ear was a sign of the woman’s desire to find a husband.
Gauguin’s works come in for criticism on many levels – his portrayal of Tahitians (mostly the women) as langorous, exotic, primative and sexually ‘free’ probably tells us as much about himself and his fantasies of the exotic foreign woman as it does about the lives of real Tahitian women of the time. Even his interest in the ‘primative’ as it relates to his enthusiasm for non-western art and sculpture and is demonstrated in his stylised forms, flattened picture plane and bright colours is problemmatic, being bound up in stereotypical perceptions of the native islanders who were his subjects. Often his the subjects of his paintings were Tahitian myths taken from guide books and presented as observed daily life. As a critic once wrote: “His art is a hodge-podge of inconsistent and seemingly incompatible styles and manners, half-digested and invented myth, symbols, stories and allusions.”
However despite all this I’ve never been able to help admiring Gauguin’s immense talent – not necessarily his draughtsmanship although I do like his stylised lines (Cloisonnism) – but his colour: the daring painting of sand in bright undiluted orange or pink, his yellow skies. Influenced by Japanese prints and rejecting Impressionist ‘realism’ he sought to depict not naturalistic appearance but inner or symbolic meanings. His view of the Polynesians may well have been racist in our modern terms, but he believed that a ‘primative’ society unspoilt by modern Western life had a greater connection to the source of artistic inspiration and to internal emotional realities. As such he was part of a much wider artistic movement known as Primitivism which could be argued to include Picasso, Modigliani, Rousseau, Derain and many others. Likewise his behaviour on Tahiti would seem highly dubious from a modern standpoint, but he was far from exceptional in his attitudes towards those (native) women at the time. The art historian Tamar Garb sums it up perfectly: “he’s not unique, he’s not an aberrant individual, he’s typical of 19th century French attitudes – how we think about him as a man on the one hand, flawed, compromised, absolutely colluding with these very sexist and racist notions; and then this extraordinary body of work that revolutionises European painting. You cannot think of 2oth century painting without thinking of the way he uses colour, the way he uses flattened areas of paint, the way he uses line, the way he imagines and fantasises this incredibly rich landscape, which he doesn’t see, because Tahiti’s nothing like that. “
Here’s a taste of an interesting documentary on Gauguin by the art critic Waldemar Januszczak who is also a fan of his painting and defends Gauguin against the accusations of racism and sexual misconduct (paedophilia) often made against him. The full programme is available to buy should you be so inclined.
Here’s a post on the world’s most expensive female painter.