Genders 28 1998

Tropical Rearwindow
Gauguin's Manao Tupapau and Primitivist Ambivalence


Note: Click on each image to see an enlargement of it.

"I'm not much on rearwindow ethics"
--Grace Kelly, responding to Jimmy Stewart's belated ethical/optical crisis, in Hitchcock's Rear Window

Sadistic Gaze

[1]  Two recent and influential feminist discussions of Paul Gauguin's Pacific oeuvre have no time for ambivalence when it comes to analysing Gauguin's imbrication in the aesthetic practices and ruses of imperialism. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, in "Going Native," argues that Gauguin's primitivist representation of Polynesian women reveals a "gendered discourse" which is continuous with a colonialist "dynamic of knowledge/power relations which admits of no reciprocity," and which dates to the "expeditionary literature generated by Captain Cook, Wallis, Bougainville and the countless successive voyagers to the South Seas, [in which]  the colonial encounter is first and foremost the encounter with the body of the Other."1 Griselda Pollock likewise cites the work of Gauguin as supplying "the fantasy scenarios and the exotic mise-en-scène for not only masculinist but also imperialist narratives."2 A fin de siècle preoccupation with the exotic female body and its availability for visualisation fuels both of these analyses of Gauguin's primitivism, but it seems to me that the invocation of this "gendered discourse," founded as it is on a gaze that is both male--or phallic--and colonialist, obscures a more unsettling recognition. The body that compels interpretation in the Pacific, the body that incites hermeneutic anxiety, is not that of the native woman, but of the European male. To have it otherwise is, perhaps, to miss the peculiar vulnerabilities and denials staged in those paintings and writings and to foreclose, in the name of gender, questions of sexuality.

[2]  When Solomon-Godeau, in particular, invokes the male gaze what is she referring to? In a review article on the troubled if ubiquitous importation of psychoanalytic theory into film and media studies, Craig Saper reminds us that the concept of the gaze, now indispensable to film theory and, we might add, also making inways into art criticism, was initially borrowed from psychoanalysis. Saper notes that as the concept has passed between those disciplines, it has retained some familiar modifiers and picked up a few more; the gaze more often than not is designated, or thought, phallic, patriarchal, male. His point is that such understandings of the visual and psychic dynamics of the gaze owe little to the Lacanian analysis from which they are said to derive. At worst, this gendering of the gaze has reduced its analytic power to the formulaic "men gaze at women" or, more clunkily, "men as desiring subjects gaze at women as objects." These phrases, and the understandings of the gaze which they map, tend to be embedded in analyses of film or art that ascribe sadistic mastery to the agent that views and thereby collapse the operation of the gaze into that of vision.3 Such is the unacknowledged manoeuvre animating Solomon-Godeau's article on Gauguin which bestows on him a capacity for violence, both imaginary and real:

There is, in short, a darker side to primitivist desire, one implicated in fantasies of imaginary knowledge, power and rape; and these fantasies, moreover, are sometimes underpinned by real power, by real rape. When Gauguin writes in the margin of the Noa Noa manuscript, "I saw plenty of calm-eyed women. I wanted them to be willing to be taken without a word, brutally. In a way [it was a]  longing to rape," we are on the border between the acceptable myth of the primitivist artist as sexual outlaw, and the relations of violence and domination that provide its historic and its psychic armature.4

[3]  At a certain moment feminist film theory, in particular, assumed that the way to overturn the power relation implicit in this demonised male gaze was to attend to the women's gaze, then later still, the lesbian's. Kaja Silverman suggests the hopelessness and wrongheadedness of this wish:

We have at times assumed that [the]  dominant scopic regime could be overturned by "giving" women the gaze, rather than by exposing the impossibility of anyone ever owning that visual agency, or of him or herself escaping specularity. What must be demonstrated over and over again is that all subjects, male or female, rely for their identity upon the repertoire of culturally available images, and upon a gaze which, radically exceeding the libidinally vulnerable look, is not theirs to deploy.5

In art criticism this tendency to collapse the gaze into vision is exacerbated by the fact that its traditional theoretical lexicon has never quite escaped the anthropomorphic phallacy; even in its more formalist moments art criticism appeals to the "eye," so view-point implies viewer and perspective usually belongs to, or outrages, someone. In what follows I will reserve the term "look" for the kind of view that naturalises itself, that asks that we accept it as sight, as proceeding from an individual's position. The look, then, is associated with the function of the eyes, and we have come to think of those eyes as lodged within the pleasured body of a spectator, the usual suspect being the male voyeur. This allows me to keep "gaze" in hand for when I come to map the articulation of a scopic field which exceeds or disrupts vision. The gaze, as we will see, is an altogether more discontinuous notion, and has a disconcerting way of framing, or checking, that look. Both terms will be used in the analysis of Manao Tupapau, a painting in which the subject who looks is entangled in a gaze that exceeds the visual.


[4]  Here is one version of Gauguin's Pacific career. In 1901, ten years after his first arrival in Tahiti and in a final attempt to elude civilisation, a jaded Paul Gauguin moved to the rumouredly cannibal Marquesas. There he built a studio which was a transposed and belated version of Te Faruru, the "Studio of the South Seas," he had created in Paris toward the end of 1893 on his return from Tahiti. The olive green and chrome yellow walls of Gauguin's metropolitan atelier had been hung with his unsold Tahitian paintings, and the light-flooded space also accommodated his sculpture, current work and the ethnographic collection of his Uncle Zizi.6 There, among those artefacts and other "flea-market exotica," he held weekly soirées, where he lectured about method, told stories from his travels, and played music to his assembled guests. Created eight years later, the Marquesan atelier, already a faded repetition, advertised primitivism and savagery in louder tones. This is Gavan Daws' description of Gauguin's final residence:

This time he identified his home in big characters carved into a wood panel over his lintel: "Maison du Jouir," House of Pleasure, meaning sexual pleasure, perhaps a reference to the traditional sexual meeting houses of the old Polynesian culture, certainly a statement of personal appetite. On the walls were forty-five pornographic photographs bought at Port Said between France and the South Seas. . . . [Gauguin]  went about the house naked, leaning on his walking sticks, the heads of which were carved to represent a phallus and a couple in sexual embrace. He acquired a dog and named it Pego, a version of the abbreviated signature he sometimes used on his paintings, "PGo," which when said aloud sounded like sailor's slang for "penis." Every time Gauguin called his dog he was being outrageous, and he knew it.7

We could say that Gauguin's career was often reduced to the serial indignity of the repeated restart, but the multiple arrivals and departures required by the primitivist agenda are such that it becomes hard to keep relations of priority and precedence stable. In this chronology, the relation between original and copy seems finally replaced by a series of simulations, like so many smutty postcards carried between metropolitan centre and colonial margin, in which all productions are restagings, marked by a sense of their belatedness and inauthenticity.

[5]  Christopher Bongie's Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism and the Fin de Siècle, suggests that all exotic travellers find themselves, like Gauguin, in strained relation to time and space, their expectations of arrival forestalled by the spread of imperialism, so that their savage or exotic destinations keep receding even as they approach.8 Peter Brooks also notes that from the moment Tahiti appears in Western representation "the voyage out to the South Pacific . . . is also a voyage back, to a time before," to a "version of the erotic" which is "both spatially and temporally removed from contemporary Europe." Once this ambition is thwarted by the global reach of capitalism, that voyage out, which was to have been a voyage back, is more frequently figured as a voyage in, to the remote regions of the self. Brooks' analysis of Gauguin's work, "Gauguin's Tahitian Body"9 and Hal Foster's more recent essay, "Primitive Scenes,"10 both take as their subject this primitivist trajectory which directs itself toward racial and sexual, or erotic, territory thought beyond the reach of repression or civilised restraint. In both essays, the ambivalence of the artist's interest in the native and the perverse returns as a kind of psychic come-uppance, installing an insufficiency at the heart of the primitivist enterprise. These analyses, doubling and departing from each other as they do, might be said to share and rehearse the lesson of colonial and sexual ambivalence: in the encounter with otherness nobody goes unscathed and Gauguin's house of pleasure stands on shaky ground.

Jungle Rites

[6]  In turning their discussions to Gauguin's Tahitian paintings, both Brooks and Foster dwell on an episode that appears as the fourth chapter of Noa Noa, the primitivist document which narrativises the time of Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti and which he composed on his return to Paris in 1893.11 As literary artefact Noa Noa remains less than pleasing, although in facsimile with its watercolours and woodcuts dispersed enigmatically through the text, it has a certain luminescence. Figure 1 Figure 1 is a reproduction of a page from the beginning of the wood-cutting episode as it appears in the Louvre manuscript version of Noa Noa which Gauguin produced in collaboration with the poet Charles Morice. The illustrations, a watercolour and woodcut, interrupt the end of the first paragraph of chapter four. This chapter, to which both Brooks and Foster turn, involves an erotic rite of passage, though not, perhaps, of the kind the upper image--a male and a female figure balled together, belly to belly, with only elbows, knees and feet breaking the perimeter of the two-toned embrace--might lead the reader to anticipate.12

[7]  The fourth chapter commences with Gauguin claiming that, living as he does among the Tahitians,

every day gets better . . . my neighbours . . . regard me as almost one of themselves; my naked feet, from daily contact with the rock, have got used to the ground, my body, almost always naked, no longer fears the sun; civilisation leaves me bit by bit and I begin to think simply, to have only a little hatred for my neighbour, and I function in an animal way, freely . . . I become carefree and calm and loving (25).

Gauguin then introduces a young man, his "natural friend," who visits him daily to watch him work and talk with him. Gauguin recalls that the youth, "sometimes in the evening, when I was resting from my day's work, . . . would ask me the questions of a young savage who wants to know a lot of things about love in Europe, questions which often embarrassed me." As Nicholas Wadley writes, the innocent intuitions of the youth and the grown man's awkwardness serve an "ever-present contrast between [a]  sort of naïve clarity and the soiled condition of civilised thought."13 The chapter then goes on to recount an expedition the artist and the "faultlessly handsome" boy undertake to fell a rosewood tree from which to make a carving. Gauguin follows his young male guide as they climb single file through the dense vegetation of the Tahitian interior:

We went naked, both of us, except for the loincloth. . . . And two we certainly were, two friends, he a quite young man and I almost an old man in body and soul, in civilised vices: in lost illusions. His lithe animal body had graceful contours, he walked in front of me sexless . . . (25).

Gauguin's marginal notes at this moment underscore what he calls "the androgynous side of the savage."14

[8]  Trailing after this unspecific sexual figure, Gauguin becomes disoriented with desire:

I had a sort of presentiment of crime, the desire for the unknown, the awakening of evil--Then weariness of the male role, having always to be strong, protective; shoulders that are a heavy load. To be for a moment the weak being who loves and obeys.

I drew close, without fear of laws, my temples throbbing (25).

But the writer's arousal dissipates as soon as the pursued figure presents frontally:

[M] y companion turned . . . so that his chest was towards me. The hermaphrodite had vanished; it was a young man, after all; his innocent eyes resembled the limpidity of the water. Calm suddenly came back into my soul. . . (28).

Peter Brooks remarks that the recollection is noteworthy "perhaps especially for the ambivalences of passivity and aggressivity it displays and the confused conception of the homoerotic temptation as alternately domination and submission." We can conclude from this that "Gauguin is attracted to androgyny . . . [as]  it appears to liberate him from European categories of difference. Yet," as Brooks goes on to note,

that attraction leads [Gauguin]  to an interior experience of his own body as bisexual, to a homoerotic temptation that places him in the role of woman and thus must be repudiated. There is a slide away from androgyny which resolves itself in a feeling of guilt dispersed and innocence achieved.15

The woodland scene ends not with seduction or rape but with the violence of self-discipline; Gauguin expends himself attacking the sought after tree, "hack[ing]  away with the pleasure of sating one's brutality and of destroying something" until his soft hands are bloodied and raw; the renunciation is complete when, pacing behind that naked back on the return journey, Gauguin can "again admire, in front of me, the graceful curves of my young friend--and calmly: curves robust like the tree we were carrying" (28). We might reflect here that civilised man, in turning his desire toward a native object, locates an ambivalence which can be restored to, and mastered by, himself--the viewer. This peculiar relay of identification and desire strikes me as all too familiar, another of those decadent loops through the exotic that replenishes the metropolitan subject via the diminishment of a racially, or sexually, marked other. This is what Brooks has to say about this sexual detour:

The incident might have given Gauguin an occasion to cast doubt on his unproblematic opposition of civilisation and the primitive and to reflect on his need for a tropology of Tahitian bodies in order to rework critically a European tradition. But he doesn't in Noa Noa achieve this kind of self-reflexiveness, resolving the incident instead in a moment of male bonding with his Tahitian friend and the claim that he has recovered radical innocence. Gauguin is interested in a polymorphous bodiliness, but when it comes to foregrounding, touching, and representing a body, it must be clearly gendered as female, albeit a female body that breaks from the traditional Western sense of female gracefulness, that is more powerful and compact, less distinct from the male. . . . The passage from Noa Noa becomes virtually an allegory of a large cultural need to centre discourse of the body exclusively on the female body, as if the male body and the temptation of androgyny were too dangerous to handle. This cultural movement may in some sense justify the slippage in my own discussion of the Tahitian body toward exclusively female objects.16

Since Gauguin's interest in framing the polymorphous body confines itself to female subjects, which is itself a culturally determined manoeuvre, Brooks will also decline the dubious invitation the male body extends and restrict his own discussion to Gauguin's representation of women. In both the passage from Noa Noa, and the commentary on it, the male body, as an object available to a pleasured look, shimmers briefly on the visual (and sexual) horizon, only to fade from view as our writers avert their eyes.


[9]  If we consider what is here too blinding to look upon, we discover another way in which Brooks' passage might be said to repeat Gauguin's "slippage." Both text and commentary seem to be teasingly structured around "homoerotic temptation." Brooks' entire discussion of this passage is caged in negatives and casual qualifiers; it appears as the discussion he will not provide. "One could no doubt analyse this passage at some length, perhaps especially for the ambivalences . . . it displays," he writes, as if that would be a somehow tedious or predictable interpretative byway down which to travel. But, strangely, his testimony that the male body as trope is culturally too hot to handle is belied by the analysis he does engage in; indeed, Brooks is rather eloquent, almost loquacious about the male body and its engendering of sexual ambivalence and disavowal. He pretends not to know, or not to be interested in, a subject about which, all the same, he has quite a lot to say. Why the critical ruse? It strikes me that the "homoerotic temptation" functions in both the Gauguin and the Brooks as a kind of erotic or critical lever but that where in Gauguin it triggered a well-rehearsed errancy, that tired shuffle toward and swerve away from the perverse, it is under a different sort of pressure in Brooks' writing. He refuses to substitute "homosexual" for "homoerotic," ringing in an "interior . . . bisexuality" before arriving at the palliative "temptation to androgyny," but he neglects to say anything about that refusal. Written one hundred years apart both text and commentary seem to share the same open secret: it goes without saying that homosexuality is the repudiated act in Noa Noa, and the repudiated term in Brooks' analysis.

[10]  Brooks is content to follow Gauguin's lead and maintain androgyny as the trope through which this arousal must be thought. But androgyny as sexual trope has a way of obscuring as much as it reveals, it tends to reconfigure patterns of sexual difference onto a strictly gendered grid. It is probably worth recalling that Gauguin, after all, is in no doubt as to the gender of the native figure he follows through the fragrant jungle, and nor are we as readers. Furthermore, if, as he pants up that lurid hillside, he is subject to a sexual swoon the poles he sways between are not male and female but domination and submission--which is what Brooks began by saying although he never returns to this. Initially subtle, Brooks' analysis finally refuses to follow what we might call the sodomitical figurings in Gauguin's writing as they suggest the troublesome penetrability of bodies, male as well as female.17 Brooks assumes that refocussing his analysis on the female body might allow him to continue to sidestep any inquiry into the relation between (sexual) power and visibility, whereas what we will find when we turn to Manao Tupapau is that once again the abandoning of the security of frontality implicates the viewer in the posture of perversion, and furthermore, that the primitivist invitation to sodomy can only safely be extended across the availability of women, thus guarding or preserving the imagined impenetrability of the male.


[11]  Perhaps then we should return to the passage from Noa Noa and take the time to state the obvious: the thing that sets in train this display of, in Brooks' term, "ambivalences" is the mere apprehension of a figure viewed--as Freud might say--a tergo, from behind. Hal Foster's analysis of the woodcutting episode latches onto this tropical rearview and finds in it a primitivist sexual genesis, or "primal scene." Citing Freud's "association of tribal peoples with pregenital orders of the drives, especially oral and anal stages, an association in which genitality is often correlated with civilisation as achievements beyond 'the primitive,'" Foster draws our attention to the way primitivism and psychoanalysis, emerging in the same historical moment, share certain narratives of cultural and sexual arrest: they both figure the tribal, the feminine, the homosexual, as caught in early phases of psychic development. The primitivist aesthetic then privileges these sites as kinds of regressive destinations, which, once visited, can evidence the shucking off of the repressions of civilisation. But, as Foster's analysis unfolds, we recognise that the primitivist psychic agenda is not without trauma. In his article, which proposes "to use Freud and critique him at the same time," Foster suggests we

hold to his conception of stages but not to its association with tribal peoples. Or, rather, I will reverse the flow of this association: for example, to see anality not as the property of "the primitive" but as the projection of a particular modern subjectivity onto "the primitive." The question then becomes not what is "primitive anality" but why is it projected as such--out of what desires and fears?18

Reading through the lens of Freud's analysis of the Wolf Man, Foster argues that the "ambivalence" foregrounded in the encounter recalled by Gauguin in Noa Noa is related to the doubled phantasmatics of anality whereby the traumatic recognition that sexual difference is founded through castration is disavowed by a dual identification with agents of penetration and receptivity. The Wolf Man provides the model of a "primitive" subject who "when faced with a castrative threat or genital crisis" regresses "to a pregenital order, in which the subject oscillates between an anal eroticism, a passive masochistic mode (associated, as usual in Freud, with the feminine and the homosexual), and its active complement, an anal sadism--an oscillation expressive of a great ambivalence of psychosexual position."19 Thus for Foster the primitivist project, while working a kind of imperialist renewal, at the same time bears witness to the "crisis of white heterosexual masculinity"20 at the core of the primitivist encounter; consequently, in his unravelling of the skeins of identification and desire that tangle across scenes such as the woodcutting episode he repeatedly reminds us not to "mistake the desire for mastery for the real thing."21 The ambivalences he locates in scenes from Gauguin and Picasso are both performative or staged and somehow real or spontaneous:

In these scenes, then, artists like Gauguin and Picasso tease out identity in terms that are both psychical and artistic, and they do so at a time when bodies and psyches were transformed by imperialist encounters and industrialist techniques alike. Again and again they map racial onto sexual difference and vice versa in a conundrum of oppositions of black and white, female and male, nature and culture, passive and active, homosexual and heterosexual. However, since ambivalence governs these mappings--since "the primitive" both attracts and repels these artists, since they both desire and identify with it--such oppositions are pressured to the point where they begin to falter, where the white heterosexual masculinity founded on them begins to crack.22

But just as these fissures in the psychic foundations of "white heterosexual masculinity" appear, Foster, in a move familiar to us from Solomon-Godeau, stresses the soundness of their historical support: "However," he writes, "to underscore the fragility of primitivist mastery, its basis in desire and fantasy, is not to diminish its actuality, the reality of power relations and domination effects in the imperialist encounter." 23 What then, we have to ask ourselves, is the relation of primitivist ambivalence to colonial power?

[12]  Foster seems aware that his analysis has reached some dead-end at this point, though a few pages later we find him putting the question a little differently. The simpler version goes like this: "How does one specify ambivalence in the work of art? Is it somehow immanent in the image or only activated in its address?"24 As Foster reflects, the difficulty lies in trying to answer that question without either pathologising the artist or psychologising the art. In an attempt to wrestle with that question I would like to look at a particular painting of Gauguin's from late 1892, Manao Tupapau, but like Brooks and Foster before me, I want to loop that discussion through an episode recounted in Noa Noa.


Figure 2

[13]  Given that contemporary art criticism has paid such attention to the European and Oriental sources from which Gauguin's Polynesian studies can be seen to derive--those flat Japanese prints and scrolling Greek friezes--it is probably worth noting that, according to the artist himself, the reproductions cluttering his Tahitian studio were, in 1891, already the subject of an intense, though less academic, scrutiny. Early in Noa Noa, Gauguin relates an incident wherein he watches, and surreptitiously sketches, an unnamed native woman as she browses through his eclectic collection. Putting aside "some religious paintings by the Italian primitives," the woman's surveying curiosity eventually snags on a more secular subject, Manet's Olympia (figure 2):

She looked with particular interest at a photograph of Manet's Olympia. With the words I had already learned in that language . . . I questioned her. She told me this Olympia was truly beautiful: I smiled at that opinion and was moved by it. She had the sense of the beautiful. . . . She added, all of a sudden, breaking the silence that presides over a thought: "It's your wife."

"Yes," I lied. Me, the tane of Olympia! (21)

Immediately and urgently he presses his visitor to model for him; outraged at the suggestion she storms out leaving Gauguin to sulk in the cold draught of her departure. But the depression induced by this refusal is short-lived, "An hour later she came back in a beautiful dress" and, the story goes, sits for a portrait. That his feint--he the lover of Olympia!--be answered by hers, that his request be met with outright denial then unspoken consent, seems to be what pleases Gauguin in this transaction; it yields an encounter between Polynesian and European replete with thwarted desire, cross-identification, and flickering jealousy, on both sides. Without making too much of this, perhaps we might pause and ask ourselves why this little scene of caprice and arousal should be played out over this particular cultural icon?

Figure 3

[14]  In the year of his departure to the South Seas, Gauguin spent eight days before Manet's painting in the Musée du Luxembourg in an untypical act of reverence, producing a copy which would eventually find its way into Degas' private collection (figure 3). The scandal that erupted at the first public showing of Olympia is well-known to anyone who has read T. J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life. I mention Clark's book to recall his thesis about the contradictory nature of capitalism's investment in female sexuality and the slippery aesthetics such contradiction implies, and, more particularly, his discussion of Manet's "disarticulated" rendering of the model's body. The features of Olympia Figure 4 which Clark draws to our attention are those that Gauguin's copy exaggerates, from the broad--say the way the formal curves of the reclining figure are contorted, "its knees dislocated and arms broken," such that "Olympia's whole body is matter of smooth hard edges and deliberate intersections" caught in abrupt shifts from light to dark--to the specific--say the way the sharp line of the shoulders and the far nipple breaking the bounding line of that arm are both incommensurate with the lack of definition of the model's right breast (figure 4).25 When combined with the idiosyncratic facial features of the model, these compositional effects, attribute to her a subjectivity unlike the embodied vacancy of the traditional nude, a subjectivity which is further pressed upon the viewer by the formulaic handling of the black female servant.

[15]  In Clark's argument the construal of Olympia as naked rather than nude turns on this disarticulation of the female form:

There is a lack of articulation here. On its own it is not too disconcerting, and in a sense it tallies well with the conventions of the nude, where the body is offered . . . as just this kind of infinite territory, uncorseted and full, on which the spectator is free to impose his imaginary definitions. But the odd thing in Olympia's case is the way this uncertainty is bounded, or interrupted, by the hard edges and the cursive grey. The body is in part tied down by drawing, held in place quite harshly--by the hand, the black bootlace round the neck, the lines of charcoal shadow. . .

It is as if the painter welcomes disparity and makes a system of it; as if the picture proposes inconsistencies, of a curiously unrelieved kind--left without excuse or mediation--as the best sort of truth when the subject is nakedness.26

Manet's aesthetic, Clark argues, emerges as modernity writes itself across the sexual body. When the social relations of mass culture mark women with the signature of class, Olympia is, and is seen to be, a working girl: she is prostitute not courtesan. The self-evident femininity of the nude has been compromised, dismantled and replaced by a cold circuit of signs, all of which contributes to the incoherence of the viewing position that the work, historically, implies. When the look of the viewer meets this recalcitrant female object, one capable of a stare saturated with its own desires and demands, the terms of consensuality that the nude mystifies become open to cynical wrangling:

Olympia . . . looks out at the viewer in a way which obliges him to imagine a whole fabric of sociality in which this look might make sense and include him--a fabric of offers, places, payments, particular powers, and status which is still open to negotiation. If all of that is held in mind, the viewer might have access to Olympia; but clearly it would no longer be access to a nude.27

Once the viewer's look is returned in this way the scopic field of the painting is defined as that charged zone across which gazes may lock and challenge the immunity of vision. The imaginary plenitude of the nude has been eclipsed by an insufficiency which touches both object and viewer; the sovereignty of sight is no longer unassailable. The critical hysteria that greeted the unveiling of Olympia is a symptom of this radical incoherence--the ways of seeing she assigns her audience are deeply fraught: to the Parisian public she is cadaver, insult, whore.28

[16]  Clark's analysis traces the enunciative address of Manet's painting as it functions in its historical moment; we hardly need reminding--or do we?--that the incoherence assigned Olympia's contemporaneous viewer is no longer assigned us. Signs of that incoherence might remain coded in the formal innovations and radical iconographics of the work but as viewers, here and now, we are adequate to the canvas differently. I want to suggest that, as an interpreter of Manet, Paul Gauguin comes near to Clark. In Manao Tupapau, Gauguin's Tahitian rephrasing of Olympia, the position of the viewing subject is also a stigmatised one, with its incoherence marked out in a specifically primitivist register.


Figure 5

[17]  Produced in 1892, a world away from the original but with that photograph somewhere to hand, much of the disposition of Manao Tupapau (figure 5) is citation of the Manet. We might think of those hands as deriving directly from the 1865 canvas, but more than that we recognise the way the curves of the body are deliberately broken--legs cross, elbows bend; its outlines against the pale sheet are also the same, heavily scored, where those of the face are slub; similarly the fall of the back seems vaguely defined--the spine and left shoulder blade won't compose readily and the play of light on the cleft of the buttocks and the right hip and shoulder seem to throw the small of the back out as though the torso were awkwardly twisted; then there is the way the body tilts or slides off the plane of the bed into a different vertical as though there is a slightly shonky perspective at work here that is capable of altering the spatial depth of the painting.

[18]  Where this presentation of the reclining female most obviously departs from Manet's is that Gauguin's native model, Teha'amana, is splayed belly down; it is as though the Parisian original has been brazenly rotated and turned onto its flipside. Gauguin's account of the inception of this painting has--as he intended--been overly useful in unravelling its Polynesian symbolics, but his comments might rather be read as giving clues to a European imaginary. In a letter to his Danish wife, Mette, in which he instructs her in the promotion of his Tahitian work, Gauguin writes:

I am going to give you an explanation of the most difficult [canvas] , which, in fact, is the one I want to keep--or sell for a very good price; the Manao Tupapau. I did a nude of a young girl. In that position a mere hint and it is indecent. Yet that is the way I want it, the lines and the movement interest me. So when I do the head I put in a little fear. For this fear I have to give a pretext, if not an explanation, and it has to be in keeping with the character of the person, a Maori girl. The Maoris have a very great, traditional fear of the spirit of the dead. A girl from our own part of the world would be afraid of being caught in that position (women here not at all).29

And again, in the notebook he dedicated to his daughter Aline, he returns to the "indecency" of the painting:

In this rather daring position, quite naked on a bed, what might a young Kanaka girl be doing? Preparing for love? This is indeed in her character, but it is indecent and I do not want that. Sleeping, after the act of love? But that is still indecent. The only possible thing is fear. What kind of fear? Certainly not the fear of Susannah surprised by the Elders. That does not happen in Oceania. The tupapau [spirit of the dead]  is just the thing. . . . According to Tahitian beliefs, the title Manao Tupapau has a double meaning . . . either she thinks of the ghost or the ghost thinks of her. To recapitulate: Musical part--undulating horizontal lines--harmonies in orange and blue linked by yellows and violets, from which they derive. The light and the greenish sparks. Literary part--the spirit of a living girl linked with the spirit of Death. Night and day.30

He then adds the sneering coda, "This genesis is written for those who always have to know the whys and wherefores. Otherwise the picture is simply a study of a Polynesian nude." In both accounts the carefully laid signifier of indigenous meaning, the spectre of the dead, is a blind, a false trail or literary device leading away from where Gauguin locates the perversity of this painting--in the posture of the girl. It is as though the scandal of the pose for the European requires a cultural alibi, hence the iconographic resort to native fear. What happens then if we refuse the lure of that false lead and wrench discussion of Manao Tupapau away from speculation about the nocturnal imaginings of the native girl toward those of her viewer?31


[19]  If we return to Manao Tupapau and consider both the position of the girl on the bed, and the positionality of the viewer then we can say that if this painting configures a peculiar erotics it is an erotics from the back not of the back: the figure on the bed--like the young man moving through the jungle in Noa Noa--is viewed by someone standing behind her. This becomes clearer if we consider the different vantage provided by a later reworking of the same pose in a small pastel Gauguin produced in Paris in 1895 of his Javanese mistress, Annah (figure 6). Figure 6 Here the viewer is situated on the same parallel as the head and shoulders of the sleeping model; our glance moves across the slant of the body until the faded dissolve of the feet returns us to the calm locus of the head. The viewer is unimplicated in this scene; the self-containment of the sleeper is inviolate, our looking as free from reproach as the figure herself. Furthermore the way the sway of the back accents the wasp waist of the female model which is then rounded out by the soft belly underside and the depth of the buttocks, is in contrast to the stolidity, the chunky heft, of the Tahitian figure in Manao Tupapau, whose gender is less distinctly marked.32

[20]  The viewer of the bedded figure in Manao Tupapau is situated otherwise. The figure in the smaller pastel lies stable on a near horizontal, but the angled legs of the earlier nude accentuate a diagonal rise which the viewer's look must follow, encroaching upwards along the prone body towards that strangely obscured face and irresolute stare. This positions the watcher at the foot of the bed, precisely aligned with the watcher in painted space--the spectre of the dead. Once this connection has been made, once we recognise that our viewpoint aligns with that of the totemic head, it is as though the scene is also transected on another axis across the foot of the bed. The effect the drawing of this imaginary line has is to further swivel the girl on the bed; it presents her more from behind than from the side, exaggerating the awkwardness of that pose. She is presented a tergo or penetrable from behind. It is as though none of the co-ordinates in the picture plane are reliable and, in Peter Brooks' phrase, the girl on the bed starts "slipping forward toward the frontal plane of the canvas in a way that challenges the traditional space--and posture of dominance--of the spectator," as she has been threatening to do all along.33

[21]  The immunity of the viewing position is further weakened once that alignment between the position of the watcher and that of the death's head has been drawn. If we look closer at that figure, we see, locked in its profiled head, a frontal eye. That frontal eye, floating in the confusing depths of the virtual background but also level on the flat of the picture plane, watches over the viewer as much as, the French title tells us, the spectre watches over her. The viewer, we might say, has become locked in a gaze across the scopic field. The spectator's vision is crossed by that weird gaze; the visual pleasure taken in the girl on the bed and her "perverse" posture is placed under surveillance, its intention subject to a kind of censorship, or crossing.


[22]  I find myself hesitating here; I realise I am on the brink of taking the terms Gauguin has offered me in going on to describe that surveillance as "native," which would suggest that the "Tahitian belief" and "traditional fear" so arrogantly invoked in the letter to Mette--the "pretext" that would be "just the thing" to up the value of the painting--has returned to haunt the viewer. If so, Maori superstition exceeds European gallery economics and reaches outside the frame of the painting to contaminate and disrupt the impunity of the colonial viewing position. The false hermeneutic, the one Gauguin cynically dangles before his European buyers, might then speak the truth, and make an unexpected return so that the "double meaning" of the Tahitian title be rendered: either he thinks of the ghost or the ghost thinks of him.

[23]  What stays me from doing that is that I know it is a set up: Gauguin has plotted that crossing. In another passage from Noa Noa, Gauguin recalls the genesis of this particular painting:

One day I had to go to Papeete. I had promised to come back that same evening. On the way back the carriage broke down half way: I had to do the rest on foot. It was one in the morning when I got home. Having at that moment very little oil in the house . . . the lamp had gone out, and the room was in darkness when I went in. I felt afraid and, more still, mistrustful. Surely the bird has flown. I struck matches and saw on the bed motionless, naked, lying face down on the bed, her eyes immeasurably larger from fear, [Tehamana]  looked at me and seemed not to know me. I too was caught for several moments by a strange feeling of uncertainty. [Tehamana] 's terror was contagious. I had the illusion that a phosphorescent light was streaming from her staring eyes. Never had I seen her so beautiful, so frighteningly beautiful (37-8).

In narrativising the undoing of the male voyeur in the cross-cultural contact zone, in entangling him instead in primitivist perversion, Gauguin sketches a rudimentary theory of colonial contagion. The certainty of Western technological know-how is undermined in the native locale, washed over by other ghostly illuminations, and it is this contaminatory logic that the painting formally inscribes. We might pause to consider that Gauguin's painting records what Foster would call "primitivist ambivalence" with all the efficiency of a stereoscope--it is technically able to present two images as one.34 Manao Tupapau conflates the native and the sodomitically perverse, it stages an interference between European regression and indigenous truth in an inescapably formalist register. Gauguin's decorative experiments with the flat of the picture plane keep flicking us between primitivist alternatives--perversion and tapu, say--in a kind of optical switchback.35 Therein, perhaps, lies the attraction and menace of this painting. If, in its representation of a primitivist scopic field, it revises the space of observation and structures a gaze that invades the seamlessness of looking, if it unsettles vision--and hermeneutics--with hesitations and anxieties, with ambivalent doublings, it also suggests the impossibility of ever falling outside that scene. In so far as Manao Tupapau deploys the blank enunciative address of modernism, it installs the position of the viewing subject as permanently recruitable to a primitivist thematics. It can replay, and replay, and replay again, the ambivalent falterings of colonial discourse within the privileged space of the artwork's frame. In this way Gauguin's rearwindow draws blinds against the intrusive gaze of the historical viewer.

[24]  Brooks attaches a very specific interpretation to Gauguin's representation of the reclining figure in Manao Tupapau. He suggests that the precariously rear presentation of the woman, and the "animality" Gauguin wants it to suggest, erases the conventional dominance of the viewer in relation to the female subject by implicating him in an economy of gift:

Like the body of Olympia, that in Manao Tupapau is offered to the spectator's gaze, though not frontally this time, rather in a pose that refuses to be a pose, refuses the sense of self-display that one finds in Olympia and the distinct impression given by Manet's girl that she is available, for a price. Gauguin's nude is also available, but in a more unselfconscious way and without connotations of venality. As an Olympia turned over, the nude of Manao Tupapau may suggest a comment on the problematics of penetrability and impenetrability posed by Gauguin--may suggest, to use his term, a greater "animality" than that evoked by the classic poses of the nude.

The naked female form . . . is offered to our gaze in such a way that its nakedness, conceived as natural to the woman herself, is made a natural, right object of vision, without overtones of sin or commerce. . . . In contrast to the attributes of Olympia that betoken the women's exchange value . . . those of Manao Tupapau suggest an economy of the gift, as it would be defined by Marcel Mauss: the free and generous offering which must be responded to by a corresponding gift--which may here be the painting itself. And the gift of the potlatch, as Georges Bataille points out, is related to the creation of sacred objects: objects that have no use value, that belong, not to an economy of exchange and accumulation, but to an economy of waste, glorious expenditure. Gauguin, one might say, is attempting to reach back beyond the economy of exchange to that of the gift--as it were, denying Wallis's version of Tahiti in order to resurrect Bougainville's vision.36

Brooks' interpretation seems to me to raise several questions. It endorses the primitivist project but only as it avails itself of the mechanism of the female body. The relation between the exaggeration of the a tergo posture and an economy of waste allows "animality" to stand in this reading where "anality" does in Foster's. The sodomitical invitation that was refused in the scene from Noa Noa thus stages a return in Manao Tupapau, only now the rear penetrability of the native figure is extravagantly indulged, leaving as it does the "sacred" impenetrability of the male intact. Sodomitical imaginings are thus rendered safe as they play across the several availabilities, genital and anal, of the female body.37


Figure 7

[25]  Before I leave Gauguin I would like to reference a final painting. Presented here as a diptych, the two images that comprise figure 7 are reverse sides of a single canvas. On the recto appears a self-portrait of the artist in a hat, in which Manao Tupapau, reversed, in a squared yellow frame, takes up the high right background; on the verso, a full-face portrait of Gauguin's friend, William Molard, who lived in the apartment above Te Faruru, the artist's studio at 6 rue Vercingétroix, and with whose teenage step-daughter, Judith, Gauguin established a sexual liaison even as he lived with his Javanese mistress below. Brettell tells us that Gauguin "gave Molard this two-sided canvas as a sign of his friendship and gratitude." Perhaps, then, this is the structure of the painting as gift: it figures as part of an affectional exchange between men which, even as it avails itself of tropes of perversion and reversal, must guard against the confusion with homosexuality and thus revives that strained though necessary alibi, the rearwardly prone body of a girl.38


1. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Going Native," Art in America, 77.7 (July 1989): 123-4. This statement is preliminary to a predictable--though problematic--conflation of the imagined and the real: "On one level, what is enacted is a violent history of colonial possession and cultural dispossession--real power over real bodies. On another level, this encounter will be endlessly elaborated within a shadow world of representations--a question of imaginary power over imaginary bodies" (124). Peter Brooks, in "Gauguin's Tahitian Body," Yale Journal of Criticism 3.2 (1990): 51-89, both endorses Solomon-Godeau's analysis and objects to it on the grounds that "such a claim does not do justice to the disruptive, interrogative force of Tahitian sexuality in Western discourse" (64). back

2. Griselda Pollock, Avant-Garde Gambits, 1888-1893: Gender and the Color of Art History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), 8. back

3. Craig Saper, "A Nervous Theory: The Troubling Gaze of Psychoanalysis in Media Studies," Diacritics 21.4 (1991): 33-52. back

4. Solomon-Godeau, 125, original brackets. back

5. Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992), 152. In effect I wish to subvert the scopic paradigm that Solomon-Godeau and Pollock rely on, suggesting instead the inability of the look to reach or subjugate its object. As Kaja Silverman writes, "since the gaze always emerges for us within the field of vision, and since we ourselves are always being watched by it as we look, all binarisations of spectator and spectacle mystify the scopic relations in which we are held." (151). back

6. For the description of the interior of Gauguin's studio, see Richard Brettell, "The Return to France" in The Art of Paul Gauguin, ed. Richard Brettell, Françoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory and Charles F. Stuckey (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1988), 301. back

7. Gavan Daws, A Dream of Islands: Voyages of Self-discovery in the South Seas (Milton, Queensland: The Jacaranda Press, 1980), 261. Gavan Daws argues that "Gauguin's filthy Port Said pictures were displayed at Maison du Jouir specifically to ward off respectability" and succeeded in offending his compatriots, the priests and sisters of the French Catholic mission, while being received with indifference by his Marquesan neighbours (263). In a letter home, Gauguin writes of their Marquesan reception:

Men, women and children, almost everyone laughed at them. The only people who did not come to my house were the self-styled respectables, and they were the only ones who thought about them all year long. . . . Meditate on that and nail an indecency prominently over your door; from that time on you will be untroubled by respectable folk, the most insupportable people that God ever made (quoted in Daws, 263).

As is well known, Gauguin's interest in Polynesia was inspired by the artificial villages and huts displayed at the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris. The aching nostalgia at the heart of the primitivist enterprise maps seamlessly with capitalism's touristic trajectory. back

8. Christopher Bongie, Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism and the Fin de Siècle (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). Pollock makes a similar point when she writes:

The pre-modern or the non-modern cannot be conserved in the midst of the modern. That is the tourist fantasy of the trip to the South Pacific. The reality is that anything the Europeans have touched is contaminated by their money and disciplined by their gaze, imprinted with their power, and shaped by their desire. At this point, where tourism rides on colonialism, and art circulates on the latter's ships, we can see the over-determined conjuncture of cultural and sexual difference, and their mutual interface: sex and race at the heart of capitalism's imperial process (Pollock, 72). back

9. See note 1. back

10. Hal Foster, "'Primitive' Scenes," Critical Inquiry 20 (1993): 69-102. back

11. Gauguin's text was modelled after Eugène Delacroix's North African journal. Eugène Delacroix, The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, trans. Walter Pach (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1980). back

12. Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa: Gauguin's Tahiti, ed. Nicholas Wadley, trans. Jonathan Griffin (Oxford: Phaidon, 1985). Wadley's edition is the source of the facsimile reproduction from the so-called Louvre manuscript of 1893/7 which appears as figure 1. According to Wadley, the Louvre manuscript is "an enlarged version of the original text as redrafted by Gauguin's collaborator, the poet Charles Morice. . . . Gauguin's illustrations were partly made when he first copied out the text, but some were added some time later, back in Tahiti" (Wadley, "Introduction" to Noa Noa, 7). When thinking about the relevance of this image to its narrative framing, Wadley considers

the upper image of a lovemaking couple . . . unusual because figures in Gauguin's paintings seldom touch each other, let alone embrace. It is an image of great charm, both in its guilt-free simplicity and in the translucent bloom of its colour. The lower image . . . in its enclosure and self-concealment . . . poses a complete contrast to the image above, in form, mood and meaning.

He concludes:

The upper image is one of innocence, the lower of a grown woman in a foetal position. . . . The radiant combination of eroticism and innocence in the lovemaking image and its contrast with the opaque gloom and inertia of the other also anticipate the confusion of feelings that Gauguin tries to express later in the incident, involving shades of innocence, love, lust and shame. Finally, the placing of the couple inside the heraldic leaf, as if they were the flower, may be related to the story's theme of primitive man's oneness with nature, as well as to the theme of fragrance, Noa Noa (Wadley, "Introduction" to Noa Noa, 145).

References to Gauguin's text will be cited parenthetically. back

13. Wadley, "Introduction" to Noa Noa, 145. back

14. On the androgyny of the savage, Gauguin made the following notes in his manuscript:

1 The androgynous aspect of the savage, the slight difference of sex among animals--

2 The purity of thought associated with the sight of naked bodies and the relaxed behaviour between the two sexes--

Vice unknown among the savages--

Desire to be for a moment weak, a woman . . . (74, n. 42). back

15. Brooks, 67. back

16. Ibid. back

17. My adjectival usage of "sodomitical" here follows Lee Edelman who analyses "the disturbance of positionality" generated around male-male sodomitical scenes in his Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), 183. The panicky confusion that Edelman argues assails the witness to such scenes does not proceed only from the literal positions taken up by sodomites but more fundamentally from the fact that these poses are figural condensations of a whole raft of consequently disordered relations between front and back, before and after, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual. The scandalous possibility of the (male) anus as a site of sexual pleasure disrupts that psychoanalytic narrative which secures heterosexuality through a positing of masculinity and femininity as the temporal consequences of the gendered resolution of the little boy and little girl's oedipal crises, differently rendered as each is in the promise of phallicism and the threat of castration. As Edelman argues, what is legible in the sodomitical scene is "its repudiation of the binary logic implicit in male heterosexualisation" and "its all too visible dismissal of the threat on which the terroristic empire of male heterosexuality has so effectively been erected" (Edelman, 185, original emphasis). back

18. Foster, 72. back

19. For Foster's account of the Wolfman's sexual ambivalence, see Foster, 76-7. back

20. Ibid., 102 back

21. Ibid., 80 back

22. Ibid., 75-6. According to Foster, these scenes of primitivist encounter, and the insecurities or anxieties they map, have historical precedents in the

exoticist tradition. Often in Orientalist art . . . racial others, male and female, are presented as passive, available to the masculinist viewer. A colonialist gaze seems to double a sexual gaze in a vision of masculinist mastery. But here too the viewer may not be so secure; would it require such representation if it were (81)? back

23. Ibid., 76. back

24. Ibid., 79. back

25. T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 134. back

26. Ibid., 134-5. Consider as well Clark's summary statement of his thesis:

Reduced to its most simple form, this . . . argument amounts to saying that the sign of class in Olympia was nakedness. That may still seem a cryptic formula, so I shall redefine its terms . . . Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality. By nakedness I mean those signs--that broken, interminable circuit--which say we are nowhere but in a body, constructed by it, by the way it incorporates the signs of other people. (Nudity, on the contrary, is a set of signs for the belief that our body is ours, a great generality that we make our own, or leave in art in the abstract.)

It follows that nakedness is a strong sign of class, a dangerous instance of it. And thus the critics' reaction in 1865 becomes more comprehensible. They were perplexed by the fact that Olympia's class was nowhere but in her body: the cat, the Negress, the orchid, the bunch of flowers, the slippers, the pearl earrings, the choker, the screen, the shawl--they were all lures, they meant nothing, or nothing in particular. The naked body did without them in the end and did its own narrating (Clark, 146). back

27. Ibid., 133. back

28. For Clark on the contemporary response to Olympia, see The Painting of Modern Life, 79-89. back

29. Paul Gauguin, letter of 8 December 1892 (Letter 134), quoted in Claire Frèches-Thory, catalogue note 154, "Manao Tupapau," in The Art of Paul Gauguin, 281. back

30. Ibid., 281. back

31. Pollock is also interested in the model's posture which she reads as discomforting the artist but, scarcely before she has been able to credit that anxiety to Gauguin, she comes to inhabit it herself. For Pollock, the prospect of a tergo sex becomes the very index of a masculinist European depravity that brooks no possibility of a Tahitian feminine subjectivity. If, in her argument, the scandal of the painting initially resides with Gauguin, it quickly makes an odd shift to the scandal of a tergo sex itself. Whose scandal is that?

Gauguin's choice of posture for his model . . . evidently caused the artist anxiety. What else is the letter to Mette Gauguin than a worried attempt to pre-empt criticism, already registering the shock of that display of a vulnerable body, its invitation to a tergo sex? The artist Gauguin so admired, Degas, at least never exhibited his comparable fantasies. . . . Any possible sensibility on the part of the Tahitian woman is sacrificed to that urgency, the aesthetic gambits of the European male avant-garde.

Her body is appropriated to signify his desire as white man and artist. Any thought about Teha'amana' the Tahitian woman as subject--as a historically constituted and culturally specific feminine subjectivity--falls under his erasure. Like Fanon's experience of being seen, and thus seeing himself, in the mirror of white perception, she is re-presented to herself as object, her Tahitian and female body spattered with his coloration, his fantasy, his historical practice of "sexuality."

The moment of production of this painting, the condition of its possibility, are those of the modernity of the West. It is a European man looking. Under that gaze and the desire it writes upon the body of the woman bought to service the artist in bed and on it, Tahiti is but a dead phantom evoked by Gauguin to muddle and confuse, an alibi which does not wash (Pollock, 70-1). back

32. In The Art of Paul Gauguin, Richard Brettell finds gender differently distributed across these two works. Comparing the pastel to Manao Tupapau, he writes:

Again, the differences between the pastel of Annah . . . and the painting of the reclining Tehamana are striking. In the earlier work, the model has just been awakened, and looks, startled, at the viewer; in the pastel, her eyes are closed and we watch her sleep. The Tahitian woman is sturdily proportioned, with broad legs and strong arms; Annah is thin, her visible arm almost withered, her legs unaccustomed to exercise. Even the hands and feet contrast, with the Tahitian's almost dominating the body and Annah's either hidden or summarily rendered. Gauguin's representation of Annah in the pose of Tehamana presupposes no spirits of the dead; rather, it is a gentle evocation of sleep, recalling in a distant way Gauguin's own early painting of a sleeping child.

It is perhaps worth noting the androgynous quality of the figure [Annah] . Without the wisp of hair, the nearly invisible earring, and the gentle swelling of the chest, one could almost imagine that the model was male. Even Tehamana, who could scarcely be called archetypically feminine, projects her sexual identity more strongly in the painting Manao Tupapau. The very inaccessibility of Annah is part of the mystery of this haunting drawing. She is utterly vulnerable, yet, unlike Tehamana, unaware of her viewer. She is alone, her thoughts encased in dreams (Brettell, "Reclining Nude," 309).

Gauguin himself had much to say on the androgynous aspect of Polynesian bodies:

What distinguishes the Maori women from all other women, and often makes one mistake her for a man, is the proportion of the body. A Diana of the chase, with large shoulders and narrow hips. However thin one of these women's arms may be, the bony structure is unobtrusive; it is supple and pretty in its lines. . . . In the Oriental and especially the Maori woman, the leg from the hip to foot offers a pretty, straight line. The thigh is very heavy but not wide, which makes it round and avoids that spreading which gives to so many women in our country the appearance of a pair of tongs (Paul Gauguin, The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin, [Melbourne: Heinemann, 1953] , 96). back

33. Brooks, "Gauguin's Tahitian Body," 70. Brooks' very different interpretation of this swivelling posture will be discussed shortly. back

34. By "stereoscope," I refer here to the effect of what are frequently called 3-D images which, when moved before the viewer, alter and recompose themselves according to the separate images whose superimposition makes up the whole. The ones I have in mind most clearly have religious themes; encoded in kitsch postcards, they might depict a sacred-hearted Christ crucified, but shift the card, or your eye, and Our Lord's head rises beatifically. The installation and evasion of prohibition thus enter an interminably mirrored relation. back

35. Tapu is the correct name for the systems of restrictive ban that fall across Tahitian bodies and their social practices. For a critique of European understandings of tapu which focus on the clean and the unclean, see F. Allan Hanson, "Female Pollution in Polynesia?," Journal of the Polynesian Society 91 (1982): 335-81. However, what Gauguin seems to be installing in his painting more accurately recalls the notion of an evil eye which, in the Western tradition, has always been the figure which oversees borders and the placement of the thresholds of sexuality and mortality. Freud's reading of the Medusa's head and the stiffening effect of the threat and disavowal of castration comes to mind, of course, but even more suggestive is Jean-Pierre Verlant's discussion of the Gorgon. See, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, ed. Froma I. Zeitlin (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991). Verlant's reading of Gorgo allows us to consider that Gauguin's painting arrests its viewer before the threat of frontality as well as its remission:

This is the context in which to examine the frontality of Gorgo. The monstrousness of which we speak is characterised by the fact that it can only be approached frontally, in a direct confrontation with the Power that demands that, in order to see it, one enter into the field of its fascination and risk losing oneself in it. To see the Gorgon is to look her in the eyes and, in the exchange of gazes, to cease to be oneself, a living being, and to become, like her, a Power of death. To stare at Gorgo is to lose one's sight in her eyes and to be transformed into stone, an unseeing, opaque object.

In this face-to-face encounter with frontality, man puts himself in a position of symmetry with respect to the god, always remaining centred on his own axis. . . .

In Gorgo's face a kind of doubling process is at work. Through the effect of fascination, the onlooker is wrenched away from himself, robbed of his own gaze, invested as if invaded by that of the figure facing him, who seizes and possesses him through the terror its eye and its features inspire. Possession: to wear a mask means to cease being oneself and for the duration of the masquerade to embody the Power from the beyond who has seized on you and whose face, gestures, and voice you mimic. The act of doubling the face with a mask, superimposing the latter on the former so as to make it unrecognisable, presupposes a self-alienation, a takeover by the god who puts bridle and reins on you, and drags you along in his gallop. As a result, man and god share a contiguity, an exchange of status that can even turn into confusion and identification. But in this very closeness, a violent separation from the self is also initiated, a projection into radical alterity, a distancing of the furtherest degree, an utter disorientation in the midst of intimacy and contact (Vernant, 137-8). back

36. Brooks, 70-1. back

37. The Freudian connotations of "gift" and its association via waste with anality can surely not be lost on Brooks. Foster reads the Manao Tupapau pose, after the Wolf Man, as "bestial," as representing an anal sadism which is one of the poles to which primitivist ambivalence swings in order to disavow any pull towards that other pole, an anal eroticism assumed in oneself through pleasures thought passive or masochistic. Foster writes:

To cast these racial, sexual, and social others in anal modes and bestial poses is indeed to reduce women to nature in a pictorial act of gender subjugation, as decried by feminist critics. . . . But is an image like [Manao Tupapau]  a pure expression of masculinist mastery, or is it not also a compensatory fantasy that bespeaks a feared lack of mastery? Does a masterly subject make such anxiously aggressive moves, or is there not performed in these images a fraught ambivalence--performed to be managed, perhaps, but never completely so (Foster, 79)? back

38. Françoise Cachin, catalogue note 164, "Self-portrait with hat (recto); Portrait of William Molard (verso)," in The Art of Paul Gauguin, 312. There is another Gauguin image in which we might find the vulnerability of the European man. It is a watercolour, not often reproduced, from one of his Tahitian workbooks, a self-portrait from behind. Gauguin stands, in oddly stockinged feet, on the swollen syphilitic legs that gave him such pain, before his easel, shorn head so bent over it that his face is completely obscured. His strangely wide hips are wrapped in a pareu: the artist a tergo. See Henri Perruchot, Gauguin, ed. Jean Ellsmore, trans. Humphrey Hare (London: Macmillan, 1961), plate 57, "Gauguin at Work: self-portrait." back

LEE WALLACE is a lecturer in Women's Studies at the University of Auckland.

Copyright ©1998 Ann Kibbey. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.


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