Gauguin: More than one disease introduced to natives. One was not his fault but he tried to cure it.

Posted by DanielS on Tuesday, 07 March 2017 12:46.

I may have sold Gauguin short in terms of his ethnographic conscientiousness. I’d been citing him as an example of the “artistic genius” who wasn’t worth it for his moral failing. There is still a good measure of truth to that, but he may not have been quite as heinous and without effort to be considerate as I had thought in terms of concern for what is important to other people - at least those of Tahiti and their culture. My line had been that as an artist he is as satisfying as any to me, nevertheless as a man who infected who knows how many native girls with syphilis, he was a killer. His art, no matter how good, not worth that behavior.

         
                Gauguin in Tahiti: Search for Paradise (1967)

Even so, as I watch this biography, a couple of mitigating facts are revealed. True, he still would have infected at least one native girl with syphilis. However, he married her and apparently did not know that he had the disease when he infected her. Still bad, of course, as there was no effective treatment for the disease even with French civilization settled there.  Add to that his knowledge of the risks of his own promiscuity beforehand along with his ultimate abandonment of his wife and kids back in France.

 

 

However, the biography reveals that before he fell ill, he was really concerned to find and help preserve the authentic Tahitian people and culture. With that, he was dismayed by the impact of French civilization and missionaries, how they’d already by his time begun to destroy the native culture. He was particularly bothered by the imposition of Christian schooling upon the native children that had by then caused them to lose their native religion. He would actually go to the children and their parents with a French law book - reading them their rights so that they would know that they did not have to go to the missionary school. Finally, he went so far as to try to recreate their native religious stories in writing and in his paintings…



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