Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nudity in Art: Gauguin Continued

I had just a bit more to say about Gauguin before I continue on. I mentioned that Gauguin frequently used Eve as a theme in his works of Tahitian female nudes. I would like to clarify that while this may seem a pure attempt to revive beauty as of old (and the paintings are quite beautiful!), Gauguin's "Eve" played a much different role. As we have seen with Manet's "Olympia," the problems with nudity in 19th-century art had to do with finding an appropriate setting for it. After all, nudity in Salon art (see works by Ingres and Jerome, for example) had become decadent and eroticized under the guise of classical themes. Gauguin wasn't merely attemping to revive the old themes - if so, he might have chosen Venus, rather that Eve. However, Eve's nudity was depicted throughout art history as representational of sin and shame, along with the knowledge of good and evil. Gauguin's desire was to reconceive the idea of the nude into one that was erotic but without any connotations of shame or scandal. Thus he rejected the concept of the biblical "Fall," and the idea that nakedness should in any way be connected with sin. In order to accomplish the paradoxical combination of sensuality and chastity, Gauguin had to both remove his Eve from society and depersonalize her in such a way that we look at her as we would an animal in the wild.

Gauguin was interested in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage." In works such as "The Noble Woman" (shown below) and "Two Tahitian Women" (shown in last post), it seemed as though he had been successful in finding the ideal and separating himself from the loss of innocence in Western society. His Tahitian Eves live at peace and harmony with nature, effortlessly and innocently fulfilling their natural instincts, while the male viewer is given full liberty to view and partake. But there was a cost to this radical  reworking of biblical themes, this challenge against nudity in traditional art. First, by taking to the opposite extreme of the sexual repression in Western culture, Gauguin set the stage for the sexual "freedom" that would characterize the 20th century. Second, his depersonalization of the female nude may have done more harm than good for Western sensibilities towards women, as it objectified the figure by allowing the viewer to look on, free of emotional connection or guilt.

Paul Gauguin - "The Noble Woman" (1896)

Pablo Picasso took Gauguin's depictions of women to the next step. His work was remarkably inventive; no artist has since been able to revolutionize painting the way he did... but sadly, I'll have to save my discussion of Picasso, and more, for my next post. Sorry to drag this out, guys! But I hope you are enjoying this little tour of art history as much as I am... and yes, I promise to get to the point! :-)


  1. This helped a good deal. Sometime I would like to discuss his masterpainting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, with you. It's a strange strange painting. But, in relation to your discussion of Gaugain here, the first thing that strikes me about it is that the centerpiece is for one, not nude, and for two, not at all erotic.

  2. I was actually tempted to write about that painting, Gauguin's last great work, but it would have been off-subject. However, I would love to have that discussion with you some time! That painting is a clear precurser to the despair that encompasses Modern art.


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