The facts are these... On April Fools Day, 53 year old Susan Burns from Arlington Virginia attacked the above painting, Two Tahitian Women, by Paul Gauguin at the National Gallery in D.C. She beat on the acrylic protective covering of the 112 year old painting, reportedly worth eighty million smackeroos, until some of its supporting screws were loosened from their moorings and fell to the floor. She was forcibly stopped by another museum goer and taken into custody, whereupon she uttered the following, "I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for children. He has two women in the painting and it's very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned."
It's probably safe to say that Susan Burns has a few screws loosened from her mooring as well. Homophobic or not, you got to be one banana short of a split to go all Rocky Marciano on a post-Impressionist masterpiece in broad daylight and expect to get away with it.
It turns out Ms. Burns has endured a tumultuous life. She has been arrested numerous times for trespassing, disorderly conduct, carjacking and assault and battery on a police officer. And if that doesn't bespeak of lunacy constantly bubbling beneath her surface, perhaps this soundbite found on the criminal report filed in Washington, D.C.'s Superior Court will: she insisted, "I am from the American CIA and have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you."
Not the depiction of stability.
Now, perhaps it's just me, but when I look at the two ladies in the painting I do not detect a homosexual agenda. (What exactly is a homosexual agenda, anyway? That everybody bow down to patron saint Judy Garland?) Their focus seems to be on something, or more likely someone, in the distance. I imagine each of them vying for the attentions of Rahiti, the local fisherboy. They both proffer gifts of flowers, all the while checking out his stalwart ass as he hauls in the day's catch. Miri silently curses herself for choosing the demure halter half-dress, exposing only one breast. She now understands her mother's suggestion to throw caution to the wind and present her lovely poitrine in its entirety, something her arch nemesis, Orana, had no problem doing, the slut.
And yet, instead of the idyllic Tahitian tableau I present, Ms. Burns felt strongly that the canvas depicts tropical Sapphic delight.
All those art appreciation classes I took many moons ago are now a blur of sketchy information. Perhaps Gauguin did represent homosexual lifestyles in his artwork and I plumb forgot. I decided to do some research and what I came up with was Gauguin was pretty much a sexual pig. His appetites were renowned. He cheated on his wife. He slept with his subjects, some of them still in their adolescence. I would say his "evil" has less to do with anything homosexual and more to do with his predilection for pedophilia.
I did come across some scholars who believe Gauguin may have dabbled in same sex sex, citing a story he retold about a nearly naked Polynesian man with an ax, and a letter he wrote, in which he announced, "I am woman now." (I will never look at a Polynesian man with an ax in the same way.) And it's even been suggested the reason van Gogh cut off his ear was because of a lead-poisoning induced lover's spat between the two.
And yet, I can't help but wonder if instead of Susan Burns balling up her fists against any overt sexuality Gauguin brought to the canvas, she might have been railing against her own suppressed desires.
This got me thinking... If my moral compass was as skewed as Susan Burns', then which master work would I go after. I did a little digging through the National Gallery's archives and this is what I uncovered...
If I were a homophobic nutjob, I might have sauntered right on by the Gauguin and instead have pounded my fists at this engraving by Sebald Beham ...
Entitled Death and Three Nude Women, this piece seems less about Death insinuating himself onto the trio and more about the finessed fingering that is taking place.
Perhaps not explicit, but from this Simon Vouet painting The Muses Urania and Calliope, I get the sense that these two heavenly bodies have experienced bacchanalian muse on muse action many times over. There's something in the cool of Urania's eyes, the ownership of her hand. "Back off, Aphrodite. This creature of divinity is all mine."
Not a lesbian in sight, but this Quentin Messys canvas, entitled Ill-Matched Lovers, certainly questions morality. (If I could mount my high horse for just a second: it bothers me tremendously that people still equate homosexuality with immorality. Homosexuality is not one of the Commandments. It is not illegal. It does not hurt others. The only thing I can think is that it might make others feel uncomfortable. But last I looked discomfort was not immoral. If it were then dental work and Sarah Palin's voice would be immoral as well. There. I'm done. I dismount.) While Redcap fondles Vixen's breast, she slips his purse to Demonic Looking Accomplice. It's lechery, it's larceny, it's harlotry, but Ms. Burns didn't seem to have a problem with children viewing this cesspool of humanity.
I love sixteenth century, French bath paintings. This one, by Francois Clouet, depicts the king's courtesan naked in a tub, oblivious that there are onlookers. But her careless ennui is nothing compared the the wet nurse's priceless expression. While a baby pulls at her teat, she salivates with pure lasciviousness, eyes glued to the concubine's pert nips.
And you might recognize this as a moody El Greco, but for me it's "Good Times in Provincetown, Summer of '94."
And let's not neglect the Georgia O'Keeffe...
It's irrational, I know, but for me there's nothing more graphic than a Georgia O'Keeffe flower. My instinct is to cover my kids' eyes and quickly walk in the other direction. This vivid jack-in-the-pulpit is garish with carnality. Just, look at it. It's splayed open like a gynecological exam.
All these paintings are at the National Gallery. All of them, in my opinion, more explicit, more indiscreet, and in some instances more "homosexual" than the Gauguin, and yet they were all spared Ms. Burns clenched fists.
To be clear, by supplying a list of paintings one might find offensive, I am not supporting damaging these or any other works of art. Over the years, there have been too many incidents of vandalism: Rembrandt's Night Watch comes to mind, as does Michelangelo's Pieta, and da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Acid has been thrown, knives have slashed, hammers wielded, even vomit has been intentionally projectiled, all to permanently mar a master's work. But these precious gems are our history. Art is meant to provoke, not just look pretty above a sofa, so get over yourselves. If you're incensed by a lurid painting, then bully for the artist, he has done his job. Look away in disgust if you must, but don't go out and buy a blowtorch. Bottom line, the defacement of any masterpiece is not only incredibly selfish, but also undeniably reprehensible.
Thankfully, Two Tahitian Women, has been thoroughly examined by art experts and no harm has come to the painting. It is back in it's rightful place on the gallery wall.
Michael and I have collected art over the years. It's a safe bet that Susan Burns would not only be offended by our aesthetic, but also upset that two small children grew up surrounded by "evil" art. Needless to say, for our next dinner party, she most certainly will not be on the list.