PAUL GAUGUIN: An Erotic Life

Nancy Mowll Mathews, Author . Yale Univ. Press $39.95 (316p) ISBN 978-0-300-09109-0

Mathews (Mary Cassatt), curator of the Williams College Museum of Art, has organized notable exhibits of American painting. Given the plethora of titles about the 19th-century French painter Gauguin, a flashy subtitle may have been thought necessary for this new book. Yet Mathews has serious art historical chops and, through 14 chapters, constructs a well-researched narrative about the painter's trajectory, with titles like "Theo and Vincent: Flying Too Close to the Sun." Noting how "central" "sex and violence" were to Gauguin, the author gets a little hung up with her own self-definitions, terming her method "a mixture of pre-Freudian vernacular psychology and postmodern pluralism," adding that she has used "the same commonsense approach" as in her other books. Unable to draw specific conclusions about the painter's personal behavior in bed (gay, straight or otherwise), the author analyzes paintings confusingly, e.g., Young Bretons Bathing, an image of naked boys, is likened to Japanese prints of "courtesans," which it does not resemble. If the focus is fuzzy on some details, and descriptions of individual artworks imprecise, a strong grasp of the basic facts of the artist's life make this a worthwhile title even in a strongly competitive field. (Nov.)

Forecast:For gender and erotic issues, Stephen Eisenman's pioneering Gauguin's Skirt (Thames & Hudson) is vastly preferable, but Mathews's book will appeal to readers in search of a serious narrative, apart from those roped in by the suggestive subtitle, who might feel suckered by the scant thrills inside. The book is not directly related to the Art Institute exhibit, but will certainly be on sale in the gift shop there. University libraries are a lock.

Reviewed on: 09/10/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
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