You and Me and Gauguin

Heather M. Edwards
8 min readNov 23, 2018
Gauguin’s “Autoportrait avec portrait de Bernard, ‘Les Misérables’”, 1888. Dedicated to Van Gogh

This year the annual Monterrey International Film Festival (FIC) chose France as their “guest country” and the movie I most wanted to see was Voyage to Tahiti.

We followed Paul Gauguin, as he had followed Pierre Loti, to a functionally fictionalized and eroticized Tahiti where pre-pubescent girls present as fully formed exotic women, outsiders are mostly welcomed into the fold and the entirety of an island exists for your inspiration. Imperialist in its imaginings, Gauguin’s singular endeavor consumes people and place only to reproduce them in oil paint and block print. Which is not to say that his art is unforgivably colonialist but the movie about his art kinda is. It was lovely enough but fraught with some familiar problems.

This biopic distills Gauguin’s syphilitic promiscuity down to one mostly monogamous made-for-the-movies love story. The writers flipped the script and portray him as the misunderstood husband of unsupportive wives, the unappreciated hero who died, as all the Great Starving Artists do, in penniless obscurity. He abandoned his Danish wife and their five children in Paris but that is redressed as her lack of faith in his talent and his spoiled children’s desire to not live in frozen filth. That his Tahitian child bride leaves him for a boy her own age is a betrayal designed to pain us too. It is lamented instead as a May-December romance that failed to last. That the actress appears much older than the 13-year-old he was rumored to have taken as the first of three teenage wives is immaterial to the tale of the tormented genius she left to languish without an official breakup or even a last goodbye. As a librarian friend of mine says, Le Sigh.

We are almost made to feel guilty, hoping that there is a Heaven from which he can celebrate his posthumous success, his progeny benefiting from bearing his now famous name — potential prominence being the only thing he longed to provide for the family he created.

But what about his art, you ask?

Gauguin’s Woman with a Flower, 1891; Road in Tahiti, 1891; Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake, 1889

Much of Gauguin’s paintings are vibrant pastorals and many of his portraits are of non-nude women. (Note to self: read more about cloisonnism and Synthetist…