Can you tell your Manet from your Monet, your Cezanne from your Pissaro?
French Impressionist art is extremely popular, as evidenced by the high demand for tickets when a blockbuster exhibition is in town. I’m sure many of us can recognise a few famous paintings from the late nineteenth century when Impressionism emerged as a fresh artistic force, even if we can’t always be sure who painted them. The pictures are generally light and vibrant, and many feature land and seascapes of undeniable beauty. Alfred Sisley, who came to Britain to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 even painted three pictures of Molesey Lock and weir, a stone’s throw (well a few hundred metres) from our local Methodist church in East Molesey and remarkably the scenes look little different today. You can see one copy in the Louvre in Paris.
Paul Gaugin was a later member of this group of highly talented painters, and in the 1890's he went much further than Molesey in his quest for ‘purity’ and inspiration. He travelled to Tahiti in the South Pacific, a French colony at the time. There he painted many pictures of the local people, including at least one 13 year old girl who was not only his muse but also his lover, and who bore him children. He also reportedly gave her and others syphilis and his lifestyle has been described as ‘despicable’ by some commentators and questions asked about whether we should admire his art at all, given the context and subject matter.
Despite this dilemma, Gaugin has been described as a master post-impressionist and his art commands significant attention and critical acclaim. His behaviour is referenced in descriptions but the art is still shown. The question remains if he were alive today and producing undeniably great art whether his work would be on show at all?
How often are we blinded by our appreciation of a highly talented individual or do we turn away from an uncomfortable reality about the person? Do we minimise the behaviour or set it to one side because we like what the artist, musician or author produces? What’s to be our safeguarding response when we encounter a situation that echoes the contradictions of Paul Gaugin’s South Seas experience and find churches in thrall to an individual with widely appreciated and remarkable skills, but whose behaviour is concerning?