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Debate continues to boil over the question of how to treat historical artists who did questionable or even horrible things in their personal lives. In her wildly popular recent Neflix special Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby spends a portion of her performance excoriating Pablo Picasso over his misogyny. Separating art from the artist is never as clear cut a proposition as some would like. The recent biopic Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is a case in point, as it maneuvers around its subject’s more questionable actions by pretending they don’t exist.
Besides being one of the pioneers of Post-Impressionism, Paul Gauguin is best known for embarking on multiple long-term residencies in Polynesia toward the end of his life. There, while refining his technique and producing some of his most famous paintings, he also took on multiple young native girls as “wives” — a common practice among European men in the islands at the time. He used them both as models and for sex, and all were aged either 13 or 14 when their unions began. Conflicting defenses and condemnations of this are tangled in a complicated morass of different social mores across time and cultures, the vagaries of colonialism, and questions around power dynamics between whites and natives, men and women, and the young and old. It’s a long-running, even tired argument around Gauguin. While the new French biopic doesn’t have to moralize on the issue, it instead alters the facts to avoid making contemporary audiences uncomfortable.
Voyage to Tahiti, directed and co-written by Edouard Deluc, is based on Noa Noa, Gauguin’s travelogue of his first stay in Tahiti from 1891 to 1893. During this time, his first vahine (native wife) was a 13-year-old named Teha’amana, called Tehura in the memoir. Vincent Cassel plays Gauguin, while newcomer Tuheï Adams plays Tehura. Adams is very obviously a grown woman — while the film is upfront that Gauguin essentially bargained for her with her parents over the course of a single afternoon, for the most part it portrays their relationship as near-idyllic, all the while hiding her real age. (This is not the first Gauguin biopic, nor the first to approach this topic in this manner — 2003’s Paradise Found, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Gauguin, also cast an adult actor as Tehura.)
The film’s treatment of Gauguin’s relationship with Teha’amana ties into its irksome conception of artistry, which revolves around the tired and simplistic idea of the artist and muse relationship. As in real life, here Gauguin leaves Europe in search of something more aesthetically stimulating. The suggestion is that simply getting a nubile young woman and a vivid paradise to play with did the trick for him. But the movie doesn’t pay much mind to the actual process of making art, beyond a few obligatory shots of Gauguin at the easel. It doesn’t draw the audience’s eye to any differences between the work he made before Tahiti and what he produced while on the island. It doesn’t even juxtapose the (admittedly beautifully photographed) scenery with Gauguin’s art, seeking where it may have influenced his style.
The film certainly doesn’t need to include a lecture on what Post-Impressionism is and how it related to the rest of European art at the time, but good cinema can help the viewer intuitively understand such distinctions with proper framing. Most films about painters haven’t been able to grasp this, satisfying themselves with scenes of artists speaking to their models as they work — think Pollock (2000), Renoir (2012), or Georgia O’Keeffe (2009). Voyage to Tahiti is no different.
Even if it adopted an “objective” framing, a movie made today that acknowledged Teha’amana’s true age would no longer be about simply making art, but also about questions of power and exploitation. Which is precisely why Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti removed that context entirely. But its focus is not instead on the art, but on the lead’s romantic escapades. In the end, the movie offers only simplistic ideas about how art and artists work.
Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti by Edouard Deluc is screening at Quad Cinema (34 W 13th St, West Village, Manhattan), Laemmle’s Royal Theatre (11523 Santa Monica Boulevard, 1st Floor, Los Angeles), and other movie theaters nationwide.
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