How do we interpret and display artists such as Gauguin in the #MeToo era?

Dear Clare:  The film that accompanied Gauguin’s Portraits at the National Gallery said the exhibition “expands our definition of portraiture …
Art Feminism Metoo
Althea Greenan; Clare Gannaway
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Dear Clare: 
The film that accompanied Gauguin’s Portraits at the National Gallery said the exhibition “expands our definition of portraiture in his work” by highlighting the artist’s relationship with the people he portrayed, including those that have “until now been viewed as generic Tahitians”. As far as I could see, this hinges on a single paragraph, the only relief from the exhibition’s genius-building efforts.
It says: “Gauguin undoubtedly exploited his position as a privileged westerner to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him. Teha’amana’s experience of their relationship is not recorded.” His portrait of her bears this out in a room of disquieting works, but can an exhibition designed to bolster the Gauguin brand make this point, when it qualifies its description of the art as a product of its time or the dark side of genius? 

Best wishes, Althea
Dear Althea: 
Everyone should feel empowered to be a critical viewer, and the more institutions can do to encourage questioning behaviour, the better. Manchester Art Gallery’s decision to temporarily remove John Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs – #nymphgate, as it became known – from display in 2018 was not specifically about the artist’s biography, but more about transparently opening up discussions about who decides what happens in an art gallery. 
Being critical can be about empowering people collectively and opening up – not shutting down – stories, which is something we’re exploring as we work towards redisplaying the galleries. 
Best wishes, Clare
Dear Clare: 
I admire the removal of a painting to create a space for critical questioning. Against such a gesture, Gauguin’s Portraits would inevitably fall short. The exploitation of his Tahitian subjects is briefly addressed through text positioned with portraits he made of women in “missionary dress”. 
I am wary of viewing art through the biography/hagiography of artists, particularly when women’s art practice is routinely over-identified with their domestic arrangements. I am more interested in the biography of the artwork itself, as a co-production between the artist and her cultural environment, including people. 
Best wishes, Althea
Dear Althea:
Following #nymphgate, we are exploring the relationships that people have with art and the power structures around it, and how we might shape the future without relying on old myths. 
Working with artists can be key, but the process also looked at how we need to open up space for meanings and activity to be generated more democratically and collectively by many different people, across the staff and gallery users. We should aim to democratise cultural spaces, so that we move beyond just redressing the balance in terms of who’s represented. 
Best wishes, Clare
Dear Clare: 
Thinking beyond Gauguin to what a national collection might reflect back to us in the #MeToo era is Oona Leganovic’s map, National Gallery: the R*pes, subtitled: “Sexualized violence in the paintings of the National Gallery. Or: studies of paintings that creep me out.” The maps were left by the information desk, among other leaflets, until they were discovered and swiftly consigned to the bin. 
Best wishes, Althea
Dear Althea: 

It would have been interesting if her project had become more collaborative with the gallery team. We’ve been too protective of museum displays’ supposed neutrality. We were accused of censorship, when it was valid to make connections between a display called In Pursuit of Beauty and the #MeToo movement. 
The reactions said much about perceptions of art and its relation to wider society. Since then, projects like Get Together and Get Things Done have encouraged collective activity with bookable spaces and crowdsourced interpretation, which have both influenced our thinking about redisplaying the collection and what the gallery is used for. 
Best wishes, Clare  
Althea Greenan is the curator of the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, University of London; Clare Gannaway is the curator of contemporary art at Manchester Art Gallery 

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