Exercise: Compare These Eight Nudes
Forget the subject matter — what is each of these paintings actually saying?
Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, by Paul Gauguin, 1892.
Yikes! Is Gaugin feeling guilty? “All these under aged girls I’ve been taking advantage of…their dead ancestors must really hate me!” She seems to be saying come sleep here next to me, on the side of the bed where the spirit of the dead will stare into your soul all night long! Enjoy!
Wiki: The subject of the painting is Gauguin's young native wife Teha'amana (called Tehura in his letters), who one night, according to Gauguin, was lying in fear when he arrived home late: " ... motionless, naked, belly down on the bed: she stared up at me, her eyes wide with fear, '... Perhaps she took me, with my anguished face, for one of those legendary demons or specters, the Tupapaus that filled the sleepless nights of her people."
Art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews says the painting is a direct descendent of a previous series of "frightened Eves" that Gauguin painted from 1889. His 1889 Breton Eve, shown at the Volpini exhibition of 1889, represented Eve as in fear of the snake, reinterpreting the traditional Christian theme of innocence before the fall.In his letter of 8 December 1892 to his wife Mette (famously neglecting to mention that the girl in question was his lover), he says "I painted a nude of a young girl. In this position she is on the verge of being indecent. But I want it that way: the lines and movement are interesting to me. And so, I give her, in depicting the head, a bit of a fright." He then needed to find a pretext for the girl's emotions. At first (in his letter to Mette) Gauguin made the old woman the subject of her fright, but later in his account in Noa Noa made himself the subject of her fear. Mathews says it is too simple to attribute Tehura's terror to her belief in spirits and irrational fear of the dark; she says, following Sweetman, that Gauguin's sexual predilections should not be ignored when trying to understand the work. Rather, she suggests the girl's fear was a response to Gauguin's aggressive behavior, consistent with his known battering of his wife Mette, the submissive fear in her eyes his erotic reward.
Stephen F. Eisenman, professor of Art History at Northwestern University, suggests the painting and its narrative is "a veritable encyclopaedia of colonial racism and misogyny". Eisenman's book Gauguin's Skirt challenges conventional notions of the political and gender content of Gauguin's paintings. In Spirit he sees parallels not only with Manet's Olympia (see below), but also with the Louvre Hermaphrodite in the boyishness of the features and the a tergo posture. The androgynous depiction is in keeping with Polynesian cosmology and its stress on the dual nature of things.
Other historians such as Naomi E. Maurer have viewed the narrative as a device to make the indecency of the subject more acceptable to a European audience.
Gauguin was an admirer of Édouard Manet's 1863 Olympia. He had seen it exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle and commented in a review, "La Belle Olympia, who once caused such a scandal, is esconced there like the pretty woman she is, and draws not a few appreciative glances". After the French state purchased Olympia from Manet's widow, with funds from a public subscription organised by Claude Monet, Gauguin took the opportunity to make a three-quarter size copy when it was exhibited in the Musée du Luxembourg. The copy is not an especially faithful one and it is thought he completed it from a photograph. Edgar Dégas later purchased it for 230 francs at Gauguin's 1895 auction of his paintings to raise funds for his return to Tahiti. It is known that Gauguin took a photograph of Manet's Olympia with him on his first visit to Tahiti. Claire Frèches-Thory remarks that Olympia, the modern equivalent of Titian's Venus of Urbino, is a constant presence in Gauguin's great nudes of the South Pacific: Spirit of the Dead Watching, Te arii vahine, and Nevermore.
When Gauguin exhibited Spirit of the Dead Watching at his largely unsuccessful 1893 Durand-Ruel exhibition (in particular he failed to sell Spirit at the elevated 3,000 francs he had set for it), several critics noted the compositional similarities with Olympia. Thadée Natanson, a founder of La Revue Blanche, called it the "Olympia of Tahiti", while Alfred Jarry, more pointedly, dubbed it "the brown Olympia".