Spirit of the Dead Watching  (DYK)

Spirit II

Art lovers will need no introduction to Paul Gauguin's famous painting Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau) .

If you happened not to know the painting, then we think it's fair to say you would not have been very informed by the Wikipedia article before13 February 2015, the day C1cada took the article in hand.

In particular you would have come away with a very strange impression of what the painting looks like, because until that date it was illustrated, for reasons we are entirely unable to fathom, by the illustration on the right, which of course is a travesty of what the thing actually looks like on the left.*

* A word of caution: if you follow the links provided you will in most cases see the high resolution image substituted by C1cada on Commons. However what was actually displayed until February 2015 was indeed the image on the right.

On this page we examine the DYK (Did You Know) fact that was provided for the article. This was: " ...  that the strong colors in Paul Gauguin's Spirit of the Dead Watching (pictured [as at the right above]) are symbolic of the native Polynesian belief that phosphorescent lights were manifestations of the spirits of the dead."  

It's true that phosphorescent lights were thought to be spirits of the dead, and in the painting Gauguin shows three such flickering lights above the bed, but the colours in the painting are not  strong, rather muted (on Gauguin's own say-so), as you would expect in a painting depicting a scene in the dark. It was not Gauguin's intention to use strong colours, let alone the glowing colours suggested by the image, to symbolize the Polynesian belief in spirits. His 'symbolism' was not quite so naive. How this lamentably misleading DYK escaped correction in the review process is what we examine here.

The suspicion of course must be that the DYK nominator, the Wikipedia editor Mandarax, a visual arts specialist (more edits than even Aaij and worshipped by him), was misled by the image and had no idea what the  painting actually looked like. That must be so, but Mandarax was also misled by the article start which states baldly: "The strong colors are symbolic of the native Polynesian belief that phosphorescent lights were manifestations of the spirits of the dead".

C1cada, for reasons we shall elucidate later, thought the whole thing a hoax, but was sniffily corrected by Mandarax here: "please don't malign one of our finest writers ...". The writer in question is the Wikipedia editor JNW and the glowing (hah) tribute encouragement enough for us to provide a detailed examination of how a master Wikipedian writer like JNW goes about their craft. We do that on the next page, concentrating here on the DYK.  We should say straight away we're not necessarily giving away JNW's gender, but they  drink beer and say fuck, so we're going for "he" here. 

We should say something about the Commons editor who uploaded the original image on the right above. This was the editor Andreagrossmann, who was active on Commons for scarcely more than a fortnight September to October 2006. A glance at her talk page shows that she really never got the hang of things, and she ceased editing after October 2006.  She uploaded at least three other Gauguin images we can find : here, here, and here. They are all of relatively low resolution and highly saturated. No sources are given. It's a mystery to us why JNW used her image. There was already an image on Commons from the Yorck project, which although far from ideal was of higher resolution and a considerable improvement regarding fidelity of colours. There were good images available on the internet at the time, including the NGA image we reproduce on the left above. It is especially unfathomable because one of the two sources used by JNW, Nancy Mowll Mathews' book "Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life", has an excellent reproduction at page 182, indistinguishable from the NGA image above (they must be from the same source). Johnbod noticed at once the image was poor and said so on theTalk page, but no action was taken over the next four years until C1cada overwrote the Commons file with an acceptable high resolution image.

As for the editor JNW, we see no reason to share what we know of him but there is some information we think worth recording as germane to the discussion. In the first place, he self-identified from the outset as a painter and teacher here.  An analysis of his edits shows he has made some 50,000+ edits, mostly on art , over the past ten years. He has been relatively inactive after 2011, and it seems that Spirit was something of a swan song for him. Thus, on the 24 February 2011, he received notice of the DYK for Spirit  on his Talk page, and immediately blanked his talk page thereafter as semi-retired with the edit summary, "turning out some lights". Looking at his User page, one can see a pattern of retiring from the project. This is typical of editors unhappy with their experience of Wikipedia, an impression confirmed at his User page presently (February 2016) which  directs you to a drama involving whether a particular artist is or is not an Abstract Expressionist. Before that his User page listed his achievements (amongst which is his article start for Spirit ) and vouchsafed by way of biographical details that he teaches art in a nudist colony (such as we can make of it) and is the subject of a BLP on Wikipedia. Anyway, be that all as it amusingly might, something subsequently happened in the rarified world of Abstract Expressionism practioners or not as the case may be which so totally pissed him off that he blanked his User page with the edit summary  "fuck this...can't believe I ever wanted any part of this site", and so it has remained  ever since despite encouragement from Sandy Georgia and beers from Modernist. Even Aaij lifted his leg at the Talk page. Over to you, genteel reader and,  no, we don't think he's a former dear departed director at the NGA ...

For his remark about strong colors, JNW cited a database maintained by a professor of Thanatology and the Arts at the New York University School of Medicine (no really). Her meditations on Spirit can be found here. The relevant passages are as follows 1 "Bold ambiguous shapes and colors (yellow blanket, blue pareu, phosporescent greenish sparks on a violet background) intensify the eerie atmosphere and enigmatic quality of the painting" 2 "Native Polynesians believe(d) that the phosphorescences of the light are the spirits of the dead".

That's not the same thing as saying the painting's allegedly strong colors are symbolic of the Polynesian belief that phosphorescent lights are spirits of the dead. Gauguin himself described the colors as muted and JNW later quoted him to that effect: "General harmony, somber, sad, frightening, telling in the eye like a funeral knell. Violet, somber blue, and orange-yellow. I make the linen greenish-yellow: 1 because the linen of this savage is a different linen than ours (beaten tree bark); 2 because it creates, suggests artificial light (the Kanaka woman never sleeps in darkness) and yet I don't want the effect of a lamp (it is common); 3 this yellow linking the orange-yellow and the blue completes the musical harmony. There are several flowers in the background, but they should not be real, being imaginative, I make them resemble sparks ...".

Well, no matter. The DYK process involves peer review and it will get picked up there, because that's what they're supposed to do -- check that the material is verified by citations. Except it wasn't ...

The DYK nomination was made not by JNW, but by Manadarax at a time when JNW was going through a 'retired' phase. He approved the nomination nevertheless. Its subsequent progress is a little difficult to follow as Wikipedia didn't then provide a permanent link to the appropiate template in its notifications. However we think we've  found the last business in the review process here. That link now shows the image as overwritten by C1cada, so we'll copy a snapshot below with the original image superimposed:

The okaying editor is one Peter I. Vardy, who self identifies as a retired doctor with an interest in local history. His contribution record around this time, mostly to do with local churches, shows no interest at all in painting, but he was getting loads of DYKs for his churches at the time (this 13 February one was from Aaij himself) and probably fancied slumming it a bit with Spirit. It's quite plain he knew nothing at all about the painting and hadn't bothered to research the sources.  Aaij was so impressed he sought his advice a few days later on a delicate DYK issue involving sodomy.

It's easy to see why C1 cada thought the whole thing a hoax. Researching a bit more closely, it seems to us more like a retirement crisis thing, the  "turning out some lights" remark directly after getting the DYK no doubt in some way significant in the context of this image. Talk pages are full of these enigmatic pronouncements whose domestic significance we can only guess at. Aaij is no slouch at the art himself: until recently, for a full two years and more, his User page was headed (hah) by images of Saturn devouring his children and Judith beheading Holofornes with no more explanation than the byline Two Allegories. Best not theorize .  

Aaij in fact made a small edit at the article and certainly knew of the DYK.  This arose because he made an article start for Nancy Mowll Mathews's BLP (the edit summary was A stub for Mandarax. Next stop, DYK ;  we will return to that in a moment) and then put this on Mandarax's Talk page after the DYK notification for Spirit:

There are a couple of really interesting features about all this. In the first place, Aaij's start for Nancy Mowll Mathew's BLP is somewhat perfunctory. When Aaij contributed it, Mathews had in fact just retired, a fact Aaij failed to note despite contriving to cite a source devoted to announcing it. It's certainly a far cry from the start he so lovingly created for his Auburn colleague and fellow (slightly more distinguished) poet  Barbara Wiedemann. She, so it appears, was one of the two enlightened souls at Auburn that LiAnna Davis mentions who so fatefully persuaded Aaij to include his Wikipedia articles as part of his research portfolio in his application for tenure. No sign of any aversion to BLPs there, although Aaij did subsequently  fail to note Wiedemann's retirement. Perhaps they had fallen out by then, for whatever reason (and what indeed could that have been?)

But what interests us most is the more than faint whiff of patronage in that edit summary. Aaij comes across as some kind of Wikipedia fixer arranging BLPs, and for an extra consideration DYKs. It's risible because Mathews is genuinley distinguished while Aaij is a total nobody (there, we've said it, go on sue us). Happily, Mathews fixed the DYK issue by providing her own expansion. Anyone now wanting to further their Wikipedia career with a DYK  off her back will have to put in some serious editing. Good on you, Nancy. One wonders what the DYK under Aaij's patronage might have been anyway: " ... that American art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews once wrote a book about Paul Gauguin's sex life suggesting he was secretly a sodomite?" would be the sort of standard we have come to expect.

The dumbing down of scholarship by the DYK system is one of the saddest consequences of Wikipedia's hijacking by its elitist editors. The idea that it involves anything approaching a peer review system worthy of the name is simply nonsense. It should be dismantled.