Although the title of the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Art is Gauguin: Maker of Myth, it is a fact that Paul Gauguin managed to alienate, irritate, crush, discard, disgust, disappoint and/or infect with an STD almost every woman with whom he came into contact during his erractic life. So, the news that a female NGA visitor attacked a Gauguin painting on April Fool's Day was not exactly, well ... perhaps "unexpected" is the correct word? What was truly unexpected were the last two sentences of the attacker, Susan Burns' explanation, according to the complaint filed in The District of Columbia Superior Court:
"I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned. I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you."Thankfully, the painting, Two Tahitian Women (1899) -- which is on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and worth something in the neighborhood of $80 million -- was unharmed due to its Plexiglas covering. The Art World was predictably outraged and, just as predictably, people all over message boards immediately tried to politicize Ms. Burns' actions. I think the whole business is more sad than anything else; clearly this woman is not receiving the mental health help that she needs. And the homosexual angle is funny, to me at least. The "all nude Polynesian girls, all the time" canvases Gauguin peddled were fabrications. The missionaries had been to the Society Islands long before Gauguin; everyone wore clothes during his stay, unless he paid them to model or asked his current mistress to pose for free. There was never any question or intention of a homosexual love scene. The "Tahitian Women" canvases were merely the product of one aging, self-styled Lothario's fantasies, meant to titillate other men, if anyone.
I also think it's a bit ironic that some people are making a big deal out of the fact that she is in her 50s, as if that automatically meant she would know better. Why ironic? For the handful of years that Paul Gauguin was in his 50s, he was (1) a full-blown alcoholic and (2) in the last stages of syphilis, a combination that rendered him (3) nearly completely out of his mind. Yes, Two Tahitian Women is an important painting, and yes, I am extremely happy it was undamaged, but, still. There is something rather "full circle" about the madness in this story.
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903)
Two Tahitian Women, 1899 Oil on canvas
37 x 28 1/2 in. (94 x 72.4 cm)
Gift of William Church Osborn, 1949
The Metropolitan Museum of Art