‘I am indeed a savage. And civilised people sense it. My works surprise and disturb them because they see in them the savage that I can’t repress. That’s what makes my work inimitable.’
Actor Dominic West reads Paul Gauguin’s self-revelatory words in a new film biography that recognises Gauguin’s formidable artistic achievement but also confronts his sexual relationships with young indigenous girls in the Pacific and his role in 19th-century French colonialism.
Gauguin’s vivid artworks sell for millions. He was an inspired and committed multi-media artist who worked with the Impressionists and had a tempestuous relationship with Vincent van Gogh. But he was also a competitive and rapacious man who left his wife to bring up five children and used his colonial privilege to travel to Polynesia, where in his 40s he took ‘wives’ between 13 and 15 years old, creating images of them and their world that promoted a fantasy paradise of an unspoilt Eden in the Pacific. Later, he challenged the colonial authorities and the Catholic Church in defence of the indigenous people, dying in the Marquesas Islands in 1903, sick, impoverished and alone.
Shot in France, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Aotearoa New Zealand and the UK, the film features Gauguin’s descendants – his great granddaughter Mette Gauguin and Tahitian grandson Marcel Tai Gauguin, in addition to art historians and contemporary artists Kehinde Wiley, Tai Shan Schierenberg and Tyla Vaeau. Through these multiple commentators – unforgiving, forgiving, insightful and funny – the film offers a 21st-century view of a 19th-century wild man.