Art attack in Washington: Gauguin had it coming
Martha Richler: The ‘art vandal’ Susan Burns had good reason to be angered by Gauguin’s soft porn
Earlier this week, a woman named and shamed as Susan Burns entered the National Gallery in Washington DC and attacked with her fists a priceless Gauguin painting of two nudes - you know, one of the many he churned out in Tahiti. She's been labeled a "nutcase" and one anonymous blogger has said she "needs to be locked away in a cushioned room".
The painting, Two Tahitian Women, may be worth $80 million in our Russki-inflated art market, but to an increasing number of critics Paul Gauguin represents a vapid, soft-porn strain in 19th-century French painting that's easy on the eye, if a little hard on the pocketbook.
The poor woman who attacked the painting is now being pilloried in the press and quoted in her ungrammatical rage to sound like an idiot. Oddly, she is from the predominantly white Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, where many of the National Gallery's staff live. To add to her shame, she is reported to have "just turned 53" - as if she should know better.
The irony is Gauguin was pretty much off his rocker himself by his early 50s, an alcoholic, disowned by his family and friends, who died of rampant syphilis after infecting God knows how many unnamed Tahitian girls who entered his 'House of Pleasure' (I'm not kidding). Call him the Berlusconi of the Post-Impressionist world, only he didn't pay his way so generously.
By way of explanation, Susan Burns said the painting was "very homosexual", "evil" and "bad for children" - and when the security guards grabbed her, she said, "I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you." I must remember this next time a traffic warden in London tries to give me a ticket.
Anyway, the art world, not known for its sense of humour, gasped. The painting was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and she wasn't even a New Yorker, but suburban white trash, with rather uncool swept-back brown wavy hair, 70s style, and no make-up.
Now that we know the painting's okay – undamaged, thanks to its plexiglass casing - and back on display, we can safely consider her response as not wholly unfounded and irrational, but simply the frustration of someone who could not articulate her fury.
I can understand her feeling annoyed by this painting. I'm not a big fan of Gauguin's Tahitian nudes. I cannot deny that I am prejudiced by the fact that he abandoned his wife and five children for a hedonistic and selfish existence in Tahiti on the backs (literally) of poor, uneducated Tahitian women.
When the great art historian Theodore Reff showed us the black-and-white photos of the desperate, fly-ridden poverty of the real Tahiti in Gauguin's time, and how his paintings were pure escapism, I wasn't sure if Gauguin was a creative genius or just plain insensitive. Honestly, I wondered if Gauguin wasn't a bit stupid.
Gauguin reminds me of a coarse London taxi-driver who can't bear western women with their fancy 'feminist' ways and goes on sex tourism holidays to Thailand. If he manages to snare a Thai woman who gratefully does his laundry without complaint, and anything else without complaint, he figures everybody's happy.
I have the feeling Gauguin today would have been that taxi driver, boring us with his holiday snaps and about the time he had x number of girls at once. Instead, he bores us with his paintings of girls he saw as primitive and unthinking, who existed for his pleasure and aesthetic delectation, and who therefore had no voice or individuality in his paintings.
If Susan Burns was complaining that Two Tahitian Women is little more than soft porn, then it's hard to disagree with her.
• Martha Richler is the author of 'A World of Art', a history of art based on the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. ·
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