"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Although Paul Gauguin has been dead for nearly a century, last fall he should have seduced us moderns anew with his translucent paintings. The Art Institute of Chicago had a brilliant show displaying the work of Gauguin and his on-again/off-again buddy Vincent van Gogh. Simultaneously, art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews’ “Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life” was published — a scholarly, but breathy, biography that traced the bisexual urges and actual consummations inherent in both Gauguin’s art and life, as well as exploring van Gogh’s unconsummated desire for Gauguin. Great art and steamy sex — what more could one ask for?
But then bin Laden brought down the World Trade Center and the cultural impact of the Chicago show was greatly dampened. This summer, however, Gauguin has a second chance to seduce us at the Metropolitan Art Museum in Manhattan. “Gauguin in New York Collections: The Lure of the Exotic” displays many of the primary paintings of Gauguin’s career along with little-seen drawings and sculptures. Because we were interested in the lure of the erotic, we discussed Gauguin’s possibly monstrous sexuality with biographer Nancy Mowll Mathews.
At what point did you know that you were going to write an “erotic” biography?
[Laughs] My intention from the beginning was to examine the role that sexuality played in Gauguin’s life and art. You may be surprised at this, but what I actually thought was I would be able to rehabilitate him. That the central issue of his divorce from his wife and their relationship might be reexamined 100 years later, and told in a more sympathetic way — that basically they grew apart. When I really started poking into it, I discovered that Gauguin was in fact a bully and an abusive husband. All sort of things that I never expected to find. I began reading his letters straight through without being edited by someone or other. I began seeing how unpopular he was during his lifetime. How his habits were so in-your-face in a sexual way.
Do you think you could ever be attracted to him?
Could I be attracted to Gauguin? Yes. I think he was a terribly charismatic person. I think he was very seductive when he wanted to be. I think everyone would have succumbed to his charms, particularly a young person. I kind of doubt it at this point of my life — you meet people like that and you think, “Yeah. Yeah. Right.” If you were young and this person were as colorful and intriguing as he was, I could see why people liked him.
Did you dream about Gauguin while you were writing this book?
That’s a good question. Not that I remember. But you know dreams — I could have been dreaming about him the whole time and I thought it was just lunch.
Would you say he was bisexual?
Yeah. In practice he certainly was. [Pause] Let me back off a little bit. When you say, “Would I say he was bisexual,” my first response is that I think he found men more interesting, more compelling. But I don’t have any evidence that he acted on that. And we certainly have plenty of evidence that he slept with women. So in an erotic sense, I think both men and women appealed to him. I would say men more often, but women at some times as well. I think he loved to have children. God, the man had a lot of children. He loved the whole idea of someone getting pregnant and showing the world that he still had it.
Gauguin is definitely not politically correct for the 21st century. He liked 13-year-old girls …
No, that’s never sexually politically correct. Absolutely.
You don’t make a lot of moral judgment on Gauguin in your book.
This is what I would say about pedophilia or abuses in his sexual relationships: I think in practice it is abominable and should never be perpetuated against unwilling or too innocent people, children or whatever. I think what I admire Gauguin for — I think I can say this — is when he put these odd and unpredictable twists of sexuality into his art that actually ended up enhancing it. So even people who would say, “Absolutely not. We can’t have the sexualization of children” or “We can’t have any glorification of violence within a marriage or a sexual relationship” — the way Gauguin used those themes in his art ended up being quite compelling.
Can you think of an example of sexual violence?
He did a whole series of Eves in the late 1880s. In one that he did in 1889, Eve is covering her ears and crying out. And he did a wood carving which is usually translated into English as “be in love,” but it actually means “be a lover.” What’s happening is, the self-portrait — a creature — has his hand grasping the woman in a kind of gesture of forcefulness. It’s the ugliness and monstrousness of this relationship between the man and the woman that is violent, and yet the title, “Be a Lover and You Will Be Happy,” is even more perverse. It’s not what we think of being in love, all this useless romance. This is hardcore physical force. And ugliness. And this is what Gauguin thinks will make you happy. You know it is frightening. And you want to recoil from it. But as a work of art, it’s amazingly compelling as is that earlier Eve which is transformed from the biblical Adam and Eve story where Eve tempted Adam in the fall of man kind of thing. In Gauguin’s painting, the snake is a predator. A rapist. He is about to introduce sexuality in Eve’s life in a way that frightens her.
I’d love to hear you do a take on his painting “The Loss of Virginity” [the naked girl lying in a field with a fox on her shoulder].
This again is a theme which is very near and dear to his heart — a young woman who is introduced to sexuality. Her introduction is something that isolates her and isn’t part of sanctioned marriage. And on her shoulder is the fox that we presume is the creature that deflowered her. Now a fox in Asian mythology is a creature that turns into a woman in order to seduce a man. In the painting the creature who has been seduced is a woman, so you’re very confused about the sexuality that has taken place. The morality of the painting is not clear like most Victorian paintings. Gauguin’s painting is one that we’re allowed to like. We’re encouraged to like and embrace all the bizarre turns that this notion of sexuality has taken. When I look at Gauguin I feel quite comfortable condemning the sexual act or behavior of Gauguin in respect to real circumstance — I feel very free to be judgmental about his leaving his wife, and not supporting his children, and seducing young women and all that sort of thing — yet when I look at his art I think he manages to infuse all of these unpredictable notions of sexuality and eroticism, and enliven what could be a fairly standard and fairly boring kind of painting. Does that make sense?
To be a devil’s advocate — don’t you think it’s a contradiction to appreciate Gauguin’s perverse message in his art, but reject it in his life?
It seems like there should be a contradiction, but I feel comfortable with it. I feel it’s OK to interject unpredictable ideas into a work of art as long as you’re not perpetuating those acts against living human beings. Is that what you’re thinking is a contradiction? When I think of Gauguin’s work, I think of the very offensive idea that seems to be a part of them. Take “Spirit of the Dead Watching” [included in the gallery show]. That is the most thorny of all of his paintings. It’s kind of like “The Loss of Virginity.” It seems to be a continuation of that theme — young girl, very androgynous looking. Virtually the same body type — thick ankles, short legs, but nevertheless youthful and attractive. In this case, there is fear in the painting, more like the Eve where the fact of her nudity and suggestion of sexuality makes her afraid. She is looking out at whoever is observing her with fear.
Isn’t she afraid because there is a demon behind her?
Yes, there is the demon in the corner, but that doesn’t seem to be the source of her fear. Gauguin put the demon in and that’s a nice explanation, but it’s a device. When he writes about his work to his wife the most important thing is the fear. And then he puts in things that might account for the fear. [According to Metropolitan Art Museum curator Susan Stein, Gauguin also told his wife, "It's just a painting."]
You’d think that Tahitian society would have been so laid back that Gauguin would have gotten rid of his European demons, except in Tahiti women were encouraged to be raped and beaten.
That was an observation of Tahitian society that was written by several Western observers. I don’t know how common that was. It could be exaggerated. It certainly seemed to them to be more common than it was in Western society. When Gauguin first went to Tahiti this was all very titillating to him. Here finally he had found a society where his own interests in violence and sexuality could be acted on without censure. But that was only true for a short period. And only as long as he wasn’t an actual Tahitian resident. I made the distinction between his first trip to Tahiti as a tourist and his second trip where he came to stay. Once he settled down there, society — especially the Europeans and Europeanized Tahitians — no longer would accept that behavior. So he had a falling out with the powers that be.
Can we call Gauguin’s paintings of half-naked men, like “Man With the Ax” [a Tahitian teenage boy wearing only a black loin cloth swings an ax over his sturdy shoulders], homoerotic?
I do. Mostly because I know the literature that Gauguin wrote about these paintings. I associate the man with the ax with the story in [Gauguin's book] “Noa Noa.” [She begins reading] “The nearly naked man was wielding with both hands a heavy ax that left, at the top of the stroke, its blue imprint on the silvery sky and, as it came down, its incision on the dead tree, which would instantly live once more a moment of flames — age old heat, treasured up each day.” This is wonderful, don’t you think? [Pause.] This man locks eyes with Gauguin and sees that he is hungry, and arranges for a child to come bring Gauguin food. Then he comes back and says, “Are you satisfied?” And Gauguin says yes, but he uses a Tahitian word that means “paia.” I looked up all these Tahitian words to see what they really meant in a 19th century Tahitian/English dictionary. It’s amazing how Gauguin in his titles picks out words that are sexual. According to my 19th century Tahitian/English dictionary. “Paia” means sodomy. I mean, wait a minute!
But you don’t believe Gauguin ever had actual sex with men?
If you asked for my belief in my heart of hearts, I would say yes. But I have no proof of that. Men who have sex with men don’t want that to be known most of the time so they don’t write about it. They’d rather people didn’t have any evidence or proof. I respect that. I can’t say, “Yes. Gauguin did.” There’s no way I can say that. I don’t have that evidence. But if you asked me whether I think that he did, I would certainly say yes. [Pause] I hope he did — there is so much love, I don’t know, so much extraordinary feelings the way that he writes these things. The image of the ax coming down. There is real feeling there. I hope he did.
Then there is another story about going up into the mountains to find wood for Gauguin’s sculptures. He talks about following the young man, and looking at his back, and becoming more and more attracted to him. Then the man turns around and Gauguin comes to his senses, and says, “I can’t do this. It’s a young man.” Then they get to the top of the mountain and they cut down this tree. [She reads from her book] “Savages both of us! We attacked with the ax a magnificent tree that had to be destroyed to get a branch suitable to my desires. I struck furiously and, my hands covered with blood, hacked away with the pleasure of sating one’s brutality and of destroying something.” [Pause] I mean, you know? As they returned Gauguin admired the beautiful back of his friend and compared it to the wood that they were carrying for the sculpture. And he says, “The tree smelt of roses, Noa Noa. We got back in the afternoon, tired. He said to me: ‘Are you pleasured?’ ‘Yes’ — and inside myself I repeated: ‘Yes.’” Is this a great love story or what? This is very intense. If Gauguin really felt this way, I certainly hope he had sex with some of these men.
The central relationship in Gauguin’s life is Vincent van Gogh. Gauguin seems to have treated that Dutchman rather badly.
Can you say anything good about their relationship?
Well, I think they both got something out of it. Certainly Gauguin got the relationship with Theo [van Gogh], the brother [an art dealer]. That was great for Gauguin. That really, really made a huge difference in his career. And I think he certainly learned from Vincent, whose painting style was tremendously creative and rich. Vincent too learned from Gauguin. But Vincent wanted it so badly.
Their relationship wasn’t sexual?
Not as far as we know.
But what do you think?
I think not because Gauguin preferred younger, more attractive men. I think he had flirted with both Vincent and Theo, like he did with everybody. Gauguin was wonderfully seductive. Both van Goghs liked him and were drawn to him for that reason — I think Vincent more sexually, more romantically. [Pause.] Vincent had expectations that Gauguin was not interested in fulfilling. Gauguin made it clear to van Gogh that it was not going to happen. He was not interested. I think that was terrible for Vincent.
Yeah. The guy cut his own ear off.
The ear, you know, too — an orifice. It seemed symbolic to me.
We can’t prove why van Gogh did it, but what do you think?
I think that van Gogh was pretty heartbroken and angry. You get these passages in Gauguin’s story about what happened, Gauguin would wake up and Vincent would be standing over his bed looking down at him. I think Vincent pressed it and somehow got Gauguin to lash out at him. I would not be surprised if Gauguin didn’t physically strike van Gogh during this time in that sort of abusive way that he had when he got pissed off. Van Gogh was a bit of a masochist. And Gauguin was a bit of a … whatever.
Yeah. [Sadly] And so I think there was some kind of violence. And Gauguin lashed out at van Gogh and van Gogh was devastated and cut off his ear in some bizarre reaction to all that.
And then left it at Gauguin’s hotel …
I think he took it to the brothel that Gauguin used to inhabit. Maybe he was thinking that Gauguin was there. I don’t know. I’m too much of a just-the-facts-ma’am to speculate. I think even though van Gogh was furious about Gauguin leaving him and treating him so badly, he was like an abused wife. He would have taken Gauguin back at any moment. I like the way that van Gogh revisited their time together by copying works that Gauguin had done when they were together.
Was van Gogh copying a Gauguin painting before he blew his brains out?
I don’t mean hours before. On July 23, he wrote to his brother talking about a Gauguin landscape that he had seen and he loved. And then on July 27 he shot himself. So it’s not like the reason he did it, but that summer he’d been in Paris and it brought back a lot of his feelings and agitation about Gauguin, and the desire to see him again. It is a very tragic story, the relationship between them.
Paris was modern for the time, wasn’t it? Was there an open gay culture?
Yeah. I would say it was an open gay culture. And there were some people who wrote about it and their relationships. Although it’s hard to reconstruct all of that, there was one. I feel that Gauguin was appealing to that group in writing so openly himself about his attraction to men in the “Noa Noa” stories.
What I’m wondering is, if you’re a man who loves other men but have no examples to follow, then you’d have to make it all up yourself as you went along. If van Gogh had had more access to a gay culture, maybe he wouldn’t have flipped out so much.
Gosh. I think van Gogh did have access to gay culture. I like to think that that’s reflected in the fact that once he moves to Paris, he calls himself impotent. He is no longer interested in women. Of course he doesn’t go on to say, “Now that I have discovered gay culture …” But I think that now that he is in Paris, he has other friends and other ways of looking at things. Would that have helped him if he had been able to say, “Yes. This is what I’d rely like to be able to do. I want to be just in a male society”? Would that have been able to make him deal with the Gauguin situation better? I don’t know. I don’t know. Now we’re really speculating. I do know from his paintings and letters there were several men that van Gogh expressed love for. Whether that means that he had romantic relationships with men, I don’t know.
How long did you work on this book?
About 10 years.
You hear about biographers that hate the subjects of their books by the time they finished …
Oh, do you? [Laughs] I have to say for those 10 years that I was working on him, I felt like it was a black cloud over my head. He was such a worm. Such a weasel. Such a nonhonorable man. It was very difficult to work on someone like that, yet it didn’t make me hate his art. I still loved his art. I like it even more because it’s incredibly interesting and daring and rich.
Did your disillusionment about the man happen gradually or was there a single moment.
I would pinpoint a moment when I was reading through a letter to his wife and I started reading them in the Paris airport with piles of his letters on my lap and my French dictionary so I could make sure I understood what he was really saying in these letters, and it occurred to me these letters were horrible. This man was the worst bully. The most ungrateful husband. It was the unrelenting criticism of his wife that began to turn my stomach. This is a man you never want to be involved with. He could really do some damage to you.
I see this “Twilight Zone” episode where Gauguin appears in your bedroom and starts hounding you, “Your book is no good. How could you write that about me?”
[Laughs] He’s the sort of person who would do that. He would start putting snakes in my mailbox!
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)