In this penetrating and daring biography of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Nancy Mowll Mathews traces the themes of sex and violence through the artist's life, from the near-murderous quarrels of his grandparents, to his abusive treatment of his wife, to his sexual encounters in French Polynesia in the 1890s. The book examines how Gauguin used these complex themes in his art and writings and how he carefully presented his erotic life in the autobiographical treatises Noa Noa (1893) and Avant et Apres (1903). The central drama of Gauguin's adulthood, his marriage to Mette Gad Gauguin, is assessed in detail, and with the inclusion of some of Mette's previously unpublished letters, both sides of the Gauguin marriage are presented for the first time. Mathews also provides fascinating new insights into understanding Gauguin's relationships with men and women and the roles that sexuality and aggression played in shaping his art. She also illuminates his homosocial, if not homoerotic, relationships with Vincent van Gogh, Emile Schuffenecker, and Charles Filiger. Gauguin's genius resided not only in his forging of new artistic paths, Mathews concludes, but in his ability to bring his sexual fantasies alive for a large audience.
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Nancy Mowll Mathews is Eugenie Prendergast Curator at the Williams College Museum of Art. She is the author of numerous books and has organised several major exhibitions on Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, including Mary Cassatt: A Life (ISBN 0 300 07754 8, pb. 12.95), published by Yale University Press.From Publishers Weekly:
Mathews (Mary Cassatt), curator of the Williams College Museum of Art, has organized notable exhibits of American painting. Given the plethora of titles about the 19th-century French painter Gauguin, a flashy subtitle may have been thought necessary for this new book. Yet Mathews has serious art historical chops and, through 14 chapters, constructs a well-researched narrative about the painter's trajectory, with titles like "Theo and Vincent: Flying Too Close to the Sun." Noting how "central" "sex and violence" were to Gauguin, the author gets a little hung up with her own self-definitions, terming her method "a mixture of pre-Freudian vernacular psychology and postmodern pluralism," adding that she has used "the same commonsense approach" as in her other books. Unable to draw specific conclusions about the painter's personal behavior in bed (gay, straight or otherwise), the author analyzes paintings confusingly, e.g., Young Bretons Bathing, an image of naked boys, is likened to Japanese prints of "courtesans," which it does not resemble. If the focus is fuzzy on some details, and descriptions of individual artworks imprecise, a strong grasp of the basic facts of the artist's life make this a worthwhile title even in a strongly competitive field. (Nov.) Forecast: For gender and erotic issues, Stephen Eisenman's pioneering Gauguin's Skirt (Thames & Hudson) is vastly preferable, but Mathews's book will appeal to readers in search of a serious narrative, apart from those roped in by the suggestive subtitle, who might feel suckered by the scant thrills inside. The book is not directly related to the Art Institute exhibit, but will certainly be on sale in the gift shop there. University libraries are a lock.
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