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  • Gauguin’s Challenge: New Perspectives after Postmodernism ed. by Norma Broude
  • Richard Hobbs
Gauguin’s Challenge: New Perspectives after Postmodernism. Edited by Norma Broude. (Bloomsbury Visual Arts.) London: Bloomsbury, 2018. 328 pp., ill.

Since the 1970s Norma Broude has played a major role in renewing the theory and practice of art history, redefining especially its links with feminism. During this period, Paul Gauguin was the subject of criticism that focused on gender bias and patriarchy in his life and art, and also on complicity in colonial empowerment during his activities in French Polynesia. By contextualizing her new multi-author volume of essays about Gauguin as being ‘after postmodernism’, Broude is turning the page on this often negative re-examination of Gauguin’s cultural and political identity, as a domain that we can now assume or take for granted. The volume’s contributors seek to initiate new and ground-breaking re-evaluations. Broude herself, as well as shaping the whole volume as editor, contributes a far-reaching chapter on Gauguin and feminism: ‘Flora Tristan’s Grandson: Reconsidering the Feminist Critique of Paul Gauguin’. Here she brings fresh focus to the well-known fact that Gauguin was the grandson of Tristan by providing detailed evidence of his wide knowledge of her achievements within feminist thought and action, and also of his respect for her ideas and her achievements. The opening chapter, ‘Gauguin’s Alter Egos: Writing the Other and the Self ’ by Linda Goddard, demonstrates how Gauguin’s fine and challenging writings, far from being naïvely confessional, aim to influence Parisian reception of his art, and constantly play with conventions of authorship, to the extent that they invite comparison with Mallarmé’s La Dernière Mode, where narrative voices enter elegant fantasy. Contradiction, suggestive irony, and ambiguity permeate Gauguin the writer. That Gauguin can be playfully self-conscious with gender issues is further examined by Irena Stotland in her chapter, ‘Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portraits in Polynesia, Androgyny and Ambivalence’. Androgyny leads us back to criteria of ambivalence that belong to Paris in the 1890s. The second and longest section of the book leads us further into the intellectual history of the fin de siècle by including the theory of evolution, vitalism and hypnotism, and theosophy, showing the range of Gauguin’s intellectual curiosity. It also reintroduces Mallarmean discourse in Alastair Wright’s account of Noa Noa. Dario Gamboni gives us ‘Gauguin and the Challenge of Ambiguity’, in which he chides those who do not recognize visual puns in Gauguin’s works, and argues for patterns of ambivalence as a basic criterion in looking at his works. Gamboni was an organizer of Gauguin the Alchemist (Chicago and Paris, 2017–18), a major exhibition which surveyed Gauguin’s extraordinary range of media in his alchemical and somewhat Symbolist process of transposing base materials into art. Gauguin as alchemist provides a further identity of Gauguin for us to consider. In the book’s final section, we end with studies of present-day Polynesian cultural resistance to Gauguin and of appropriation of his work. The last word is given to Heather Waldroup, who likens the artefacts left to us by Gauguin to colonial cargo that is now being repossessed and reprocessed in rich and innovative works by contemporary women artists, both in Polynesia and more widely, [End Page 640] and notably Debra Drexler. Broude’s bid to provide fresh perspectives in Gauguin studies brings us firmly into our own time.

Richard Hobbs
University of Bristol


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pp. 640-641
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