You might have heard that Paul Gauguin’s painting of two Tahitian girls, When Will You Marry”, sold for $300m (£197m), which it the most any work of art has ever sold for, but nobody is talking about the dramatic flaws in the painting. And yes, I do know the difference between exaggeration, abstraction, stylization, combinations thereof, and just plain botching it.
First, some background.
Who bought it.
The painting was bought by a Qatari conglomerate of museums that has already spent billions of dollars on art. One may wonder why museums in a country whose constitution is largely based on Shariah Law want a painting of Tahitian girls as depicted by a Frenchman who had sex with several of his subjects. It might have to do with there being more expatriates living there (1.5 million) than Qatari citizens (278,000), and of course that Qatar CAN buy whatever it wants. It is the richest country in the world per capita, with millionaires in 14% of households, according to the World Atlas Factbook. Qatar, as you know, sits on oil. I don’t think I need to elaborate.
What about the painting?
The Post Impressionist painting “When Will You Marry? (Nafea Faa Ipoipo?) depicts two Tahitian girls in an idyllic landscape of scintillating color. The style is a mix of Impressionism, Symbolism, and Primitivism, with French Polynesian influences. The imagery is rendered in flat shapes, and bold, exotic colors.
The girl in front has a flower over her left ear, which means that she is looking for a husband. The woman in back is wearing a missionary dress, and has her hand up in a gesture of caution and warning. For the intended French audience, we have a young native girl, front and center, and the sternness of the woman accompanying her indicates she is available, and innocent. Gauguin is peddling a bit of a fantasy here: an exotic paradise, untrammeled by Western influences, and populated with ripe young available women who beguile the lazy hours lounging about on the grass.
It’s the world he sought in Tahiti, but didn’t find. By the time he arrived more than two-thirds of the indigenous population had died from exposure to contagious diseases brought by European colonialists, and the native religion had been replaced by Christianity. The island had become an ordinary home to a growing, international, Westernized community.
Gauguin, undeterred, painted his own vision, and his canvas is a mirage of the imagination.
A little about the artist.
Gauguin had been a stockbroker, finally got fed up after the stock market crash of 1882, and sought a life in which he could forsake European civilization, everything that is artificial and conventional, and live off of fish and fruit, while painting in a more and more primitive style.
He died at the age of 54 from a combination of syphilis, enduring effects of malaria, heart problems, eczema, a liver compromised by alcohol, and a possible morphine overdose. He left behind a teenaged bride and one-year old daughter.
Gauguin, like his contemporary, Van Gogh, was not appreciated in his lifetime anything like he is now. It makes one wonder if the more an artist suffered without reward, the more their work is valued post mortem.
What’s so weird about the painting?
Take a look at it and see what you can find that might be considered “wrong” if it weren’t entirely justified as part of his unique style.
The easiest thing to pick off, probably, is the color of the sky. But it’s also easy to not notice, because it feels warm, and that makes sense. Just don’t stop and think about it too much, or you might wonder if a volcano had belched an enormous plume of sulfur in the air. Don’t think I don’t like it, though. That kind of liberty with color gives the painting a dreamy, otherworldly feel, which I definitely like. And don’t get me wrong, I like the painting overall, and am a big fan of Gauguin, but there are flaws even within his own stylistic parameters. Don’t get angry. When it’s the world’s most expensive work of art, it can afford to be looked at with a little bit of a critical eye, and you can always completely dismiss me as just not getting it, missing the point, or guilty of “a little knowledge is dangerous”.
Wanna know what it would look like with a blue sky?
Ah oh. I’m not 100% sure I prefer the yellow sky. I’m guessing he was trying to convey heat, and blue just wasn’t cutting it. Or maybe blue looked too much like France or someplace else less exotic, and wasn’t the look he was going for.
The thing that really bugged me though, which was actually the first thing I noticed, is that the girl in front doesn’t have a neck, in which case her face looks not only pasted on, but pasted on in the wrong place. Her left shoulder is worthy of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, especially if you compare it to the corresponding shoulder of the woman behind her.
The only possible explanation for where the neck is, is that it’s completely hidden by the face, in which case it has to be jutting out of her right shoulder. There’s enough room on her left shoulder for a second head.
I’m sure if Gauguin gave it enough time, and if his real objective were to get anatomy down correctly, he probably could. He’d rendered anatomy better in the past, though he was a bit hit and miss. But here, in his attempt to be Primitive, there’s a very uneasy relationship between the flattening of the figures, and paying lip service to perspective. And in some sections it went horribly awry. Gauguin, like Van Gogh, got a late start painting, and both of them made beginner mistakes, even as they were developing their mature styles.
In the painting below, Annah, the Javanese, (1893), he clealy shows he can be more realistic with his proportions and perspective if he chooses to, though it is a bit odd how she’s somewhere between standing, sitting, and floating.
Back to the atrocities. Take that hand. Yuck! What’s wrong with the thumb? Take a close look at that hand.
If it’s not perfectly apparent what’s so wrong with the hand, look at your own, especially the distance between the knuckle of your index finger and where your thumb meets your hand. He totally got this wrong in the sketch as well. Yikes! If you can’t be bothered looking at your own hand, I made a comparison for you below that makes the problem abundantly clear.
There’s more in the painting that’s atrocious, if looked at by normal standards of anatomy. And even if it WERE deliberate on Gauguin’s part, then it would mean that we wouldn’t fully be appreciating his art if we hadn’t seen what he’d intended to do. So, without further ado, her left arm is thicker than her head (and I don’t mean above the shoulder, but even at the bicep).
Her most extreme physical anomaly, however, is her left leg. It’s dramatically truncated below the knee, and tragically bent.
And what of the woman in the background? I’ve tried and tried and I cannot make sense out of her body, unless she’s doing yoga. I can’t negotiate the relationship between her torso and her lower body. Are those her knees or is it her butt? Either way, I still can’t connect her upper and lower body without severing her spine.
Part of what makes the woman in back confusing is her head is as big as the girl’s in front, and the girl in front is even leaning closer to us. Whatever is closer to us should be bigger, otherwise it will look a bit off.
You might be thinking that this is all part of Gauguin’s style of flattening the picture plane, and emphasizing broad shapes and colors. You might also want to say that Picasso is much worse. And you’d be right. But even within that style, you still don’t want the girl’s head to look like it’s been cut and pasted, and in the wrong spot. You don’t want her to look like she could kill you with a left hook, or that her hand and leg are deformed.
I’m sure some Gauguin fans are bristling, if they even made it this far. They might be thinking that I don’t understand the difference between realistic painting and his style. I do. I love some Gauguin paintings, and it has a lot to do with his own particular style, especailly his palette. Below are two of my favorites.
Some artists, including Gauguin exaggerate features to get a desired effect. In the portrait by Egon Schiele below, the subject is extremely elongated. Nobody has fingers or a neck that long. But it is consistent and makes sense within its own stylistic framework.
Schiele usually painted from live models, and did so much of it that he wasn’t likely to make the sorts of anatomical mistakes Gauguin did. Gauguin often did not use live models, but worked off his sketches, and eyeballed it (there’s an example further down). However, Schiele’s color can not touch Gauguin’s.
Picasso abstracted figures. In his mature work, you can’t fault his anatomies because he botched them deliberately. But in Gauguin’s “When Will You Marry”, it’s not deliberate, and it’s not within the boundaries of the level of abstraction or exaggeration within his own style. Come to think of it, I don’t think Picasso is as good a colorist as Gauguin, either.
If you still don’t believe that Gauguin could ever botch something, look at the painting below. I wonder if this is really even by him, it’s so painful to look at. Just gaze your eyes on the girl in the back. What is going on with her arm? We see her back and her chest at the same time, with the arm sandwiched in the middle. And the girl in the front? We are looking at the left side of her head, but see the right corner of her mouth. FAIL! You’re just going to have to admit that sometimes he botched it. Or maybe these works are just not as resolved, and he aways struggled with getting anatomy and perspective correctly. Most artists do. I do (goes without saying).
And yes, sometimes he really did copy and paste images from one painting onto the next, and then in making some changes, like in the position of limbs, couldn’t match the new limb to the old body. The two paintings below, from 1891, and 1892, are a good example of this. While I vastly prefer the painting on the right, the new left leg doesn’t align properly with the old position of the body. It looks like her thigh was flattened in a road accident. He may have just tried to eyeball it, and fudge it, and guess what, it didn’t quite succeed.
So, what’s my point? Art is hard, and even some of the best artists struggle with anatomy, lighting, modeling, and perspective, especially when reconciling combining disparate styles. The only perfect art is minimalist, because there’s not enough going on for there to be more than one or two possible things to go wrong. Art is a bit like a motorcycle stunt. The harder the thing you are trying to achieve, the more likely you’ll bungle it. If you are just jumping over one or two cars, you can clear it no problem. When you try to jump a dozen buses, more can go wrong. I’m also poking fun at Qatar spending $300,000,000 on a painting that has some comical errors.
That $300,000,000 could have been used to give 10,000 living artists $30,000 each to work on art for a year, which would result in a hundred thousand new art pieces. Or we can invest in just this one botched painting as a relic of a celebrity.
The collectors who bought Guaguin’s painting are the same type of collectors who wouldn’t have even looked at his work in his lifetime. They probably don’t even see the oddball gaffes in it, which means they also can’t see what really shines in the work. They are perpetuating the kind of art world that invests in fetish objects by long dead brand names, and keeps the Gauguins of our lifetimes married to their day jobs.
Addendum: Gauguin is not alone.
Look at the painting below by Gustave Caillebotte. Why are their arms and especially their hands so tiny?!
And let’s not forget the 2nd most expensive painting ever, Cezanne’s The Card Players, which sold for $250 million. The man on the left’s arm is much longer between the elbow and the shoulder than between the elbow and the wrist. Compare his forearm to the other man’s.
Another of the top ten most expensive paintings is Picasso’s Garcon à la Pipe, which sold for over $100 million. I don’t care if it IS Picasso. That left arm is agonizing.
If you don’t see the problem, just look where his right elbow is, and then look at his left. I understand abstraction and distortion, like the eyes that aren’t lining up at all, but this is deformation.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec could also get proportions all wrong. Look at his portrait of Van Gogh below. The head is too big, and the arm is too small.
Vincent must have been hard to look at, because nobody seemed to be able to draw or paint him without it coming out very awkward. The portrait below, ostensibly of him, by Emile Bernard places his ear way too far back, so it’s making a slow, counter clockwise, migration around his head.