Dear Horst Waldemar Janson:
You have haunted me throughout my life, from the first moment when as a young child in a summer art program in San Diego, a boy my age told me quite confidently that women could not be artists.
The first edition of your tome, “History of Art,” had already come out. I would not read it until many years later as an undergraduate student in an art history class that I enjoyed when it did not make me bristle with rebellion.
If women could not be artists, what could they be? Quite obviously, we could be models, objects of desire. The topics to which we might be drawn were not considered appropriate subjects of great art–hearth and home, children and child-surrogates. Domesticity.
And as decent women were clothed as the ages grew more conservative but what of women of the so-called Orient? At a time when the Orient spanned from North Africa to the Hawaii islands, the women of those places were still objects and to a large extent, we are still little more than objects.
Women of the Orient are Hong Kong hostesses, concubines, harem girls, hula whores and geisha girls–willing pleasure servers of men, especially white men who are a supposed vast improvement over the inferior Oriental men. That’s why it’s so easy for so many to speak well of Paul Gauguin. He deserted his wife and children for his art.
In my edition, you wrote that like Vincent Van Gogh, “the quest for religious experience also played an important part in the work–if not in the life–of another great Post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin.” While you report that he “separated from his family” you specifically don’t mention that he had a wife and five children. What is religious about forgetting your children? What happened to the commandment against adultery? Gauguin fathered children by his mistresses. Did he support them all?
In Tahiti, Gauguin searched for the white man’s paradise and died of syphilis. You wrote that “no one before Gauguin had gone as far to put the doctrine of primitivism into practice. His pilgrimage to the South Pacific had more than a purely private meaning: it symbolizes the end of the four hundred years of colonial expansion which had brought the entire globe under Western domination. The ‘white man’s burden,’ once so cheerfully–and ruthlessly–shouldered by the empire builders, was becoming unbearable.” The renewal of Western civilization and art must come from the Primitives and yet in practice, it was only the primitive women and not the men who were desirable. To me Gauguin represents a different type of imperialism, a kind of cultural imperialism that survives today.
In my reality, the renewal of civilization is a global matter and won’t come about until women can be artists, and art history and museums recognize women as more than objects. While dating in Los Angeles, I met too many men who were still looking for their young primitive native Polynesian girl, a grateful Japanese geisha, a humble Oriental prostitute who was willing to serve white male fantasies as the echoes of empire survive. Still, if we turn the paradigm around and allow men to be deluded by their own Oriental fantasies, then there are a few odd victories.
“Gauguin Girl” was based on a small newspaper item of one online dating incident where a woman turned the tables on at least one man, but one suspects there were many more. Perhaps Sophie Gauguin would approve?
Jana Monji’s story, “Gauguin Girl,” was published in the Spring 2012 Generations issue.