Spirit of the Dead Watching (start)

Spirit I

On the preceding page we looked at the DYK supplied for Wikipedia's article on Paul Gauguin's famous painting Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau). On this page we'll have a look at at the other problems with the article start supplied by the Wikipedia editor JNW, described by his fellow editor Mandarax as one of Wikipedia's "finest writers".

Our purpose is not primarly to rubbish the article (although necessarily that is indeed what we do), but to point out that this very poor start survived Wikipedia's review process with all its faults intacts for a full four years before C1cada began to edit there and to suggest how that came about.

If you look at the link to JNW's start you will see the image illustrating the painting that C1cada uploaded. This was because C1cada overwrote the original image at Commons. We copy below a snapshot of how the start actually looked below:

We can begin by looking at the sources used. These are two in number. The first is a blog by a professor of Thanatology, while the second is a biography, admittedly noted, concentrating on Gauguin's erotic life, one recognized as the least sympathetic of Gauguin's many biographies.

The blog comes from a database maintained at the New York University's School of Medicine by one Sandra L. Bertman. As a thanatological study of the painting it no doubt has its merits, but as art criticism it really doesn't pass muster. Amongst other matters, it crucially misquotes Gauguin. How JNW came across it is not clear. It can't have figured very highly in the search engines at the time. At any rate it shouldn't be regarded as a so-called Reliable Source (RS) that Wikipedia depends on. The essence of these is that they are subject to critical review and this is plainly not such a source, for all the good intentions of its patron.

The biography is Nancy Mowll Mathew's Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life  (excerpted here). Mathews herself describes her book as,  "a biographical examination of Gauguin with an emphasis on his use of sexuality and violence as a strategy in his life and art". It's not our purpose (nor within our competence) to critique this biography, though we are happy to acknowledge that we admire it and think it plausible in its portrayal of Gauguin. But it's plainly somewhat selective in its outlook and especially so, as we shall see, in its remarks about this painting. It shouldn't have been quoted uncritically. The biography is admired for its rehabilitation of Gauguin's wife Mette, represented as a shrew in Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, a characterization that stuck. It is also the source for the now commonplace observation (for example in Ariella Budick's splendid review of MoMA's 2014 Gauguin show) that Gauguin battered Mette. That is also something that should not have been copied uncritically.

We deal with the image, a travesty of what the painting looks like, on the DYK page. Likewise the sentence "The strong colors are symbolic of the native Polynesian belief that phosphorescent lights were manifestations of the spirits of the dead" that was the basis of the DYK. That was sourced to Bertman's blog, but as we showed that's not actually what she says. It's plainly an editorialism on JNW's part whose origin must lie in the very poor image he uses, baffling since there is an excellent image in Mathew's book which makes it plain that the colors were on the contrary subdued, as Gauguin expressly described them himself (and more baffling still, later quoted by JNW).

The first paragraph asserts (sourced from Bertman) that the title Manao tupapau  in Tahitian mythology refers to either the girl imagining the ghost or the ghost imagining the girl. But that is not so. Gauguin's command of Tahitian was very limited.  It simply means Thought Spirit  without any connective. Gauguin's explanation of the title in this way occurs in his notebook for his daughter Aline. It was not the translation he provided his wife Mette for the Copenhagen exhibition, where it is offered as both "thinks of, or believes in, the ghost" and as "ghost or spirit of the dead watches over her."

The second paragraph gives the age of Gauguin's vahine Teha'amana  (uncritically described as "wife") as fourteen years old at the time. That she was thirteen years old at the time Gauguin took her in (there is no source to indicate she had advanced to fourteen at the time of the painting) was Gauguin's boast, bettering Le Mariage de Loti  in his eyes one imagines, and generally regarded as suspect, although no doubt she was very young. Bertman glosses on the issue ("a Tahitian female"), while Mathews addresses the issue directly, as we represent it, at page  179 of her book, continuing to discuss what amounts to an early example of sex tourism. JNW thus misrepresents both his sources for an invention of his own.

JNW then continues by quoting Bertman on Gauguin's account of the painting. This is one of several detailed accounts Gauguin gave, and this one is his last as eventually published in his travelogue Noa Noa.  Bertman does give the source and so should have JNW.  But what is reprehensible here is that Bertman misquotes Gauguin with "her frightened face". It should be "my  frightened face" and that's pretty critical for a proper reading of the painting. Mathews, who has a much better translation at page 182 of her book, gets the pronoun right, but that escaped JNW. To be fair it also escaped C1cada editing later, but then he would make no claim to be a visual arts specialist.

The next sentence, "The  spirit she fears is personified by the old woman seated at the left", is sourced from Bertman's opening,  ".. terrified by the presence of the spirit of death". But this, as Mathews makes clear at her page 181,  was only Gauguin's first shot at providing a narrative for the painting as set forth in his 1892 letter to Mette, elaborated further below. The paragraph concludes with the "strong colors" that was the basis of the DYK, already noted as an editorialism on his part not supported by his sources and evidently inspired by his neon colorized image.

The  concluding paragraph of JNW's article start is all sourced from Mathews. However it actually misunderstands her and fails to note her own reservations in her account.

It begins with a reference to "frightened Eves". But that should have come after introducing Mathews, as the collocation "frightened Eves" is an invention of Mathews that isn't found anywhere else. It represents standard critique of Gauguin's work in the context of the Volponi exhibition and his Primitivism as developed by Mathews, and in fact amounts to the heart of her treatment of Gauguin's life. There should have been proper page references (133-135) supplied for the discussion and some attempt at least made to indicate its content. As it stands, the opening sentence is meaningless to readers.

The following sentence, commencing "For art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews ..." is a clumsy attempt to paraphrase Mathews' next paragraph, in which she quotes from Gauguin's 1892 letter to Mette setting forth his first version of the narrative. In particular JNW's "mild eroticism" is a very bad paraphrase of Mathew's " verging on indecency", her own good translation of Gauguin's colloquial (he was a fine and interesting writer) dans cette position, un rien, et elle est indécente, introducing exactly what Gauguin was at pains to avoid. It is quite reprehensible on JNW's part.

The next sentence commencing "Mathews finds too simple ..." misrepresents Mathews own reservations she sets out in a footnote (note 73 on page 298) where she acknowledges that the painting's relation to Polynesian myths and customs has been much studied. Worse it introduces Gauguin's "agressive behaviour", not part of Mathews account of the painting,  and  uncritically references Gauguin's battering of Mette, rather than making it clear this is part of Mathew's account of Gauguin's life  (based on analytic interpretations of the material and a single source for battering she found in the letters). Worst of all the reader gets no proper account of Mathews' central point, that Gauguin, so to speak, changed his story so as to fit the painting into the account of his erotic life he set forth in Noa Noa. Finally Mathews' further interesting remarks about the androgynous nature of the image are entirely ignored by JNW.

All of this dreadfully poor account on JNW's part (a straight fail if it had been presented as a term paper) would not have mattered one jot if it had been genuinely reviewed and edited by the Wikipedia community. But it was not. It stood essentially unchanged for the next four years, neon image and all, and when an editor (C1cada) did finally make corrections in the material, he was trolled by JNW and Mandarax and ultimately blocked by Aaij.

After making his article start (which he describes as "publishing"), JNW added it to the list of article starts he maintained on his Talk page. He then provided a wikilink at the article on Paul Gauguin. He likewise provided a link at the Austronesia section of the article on Ghosts and at the article on Modern Art.These were reasonable attempts to bring his start to the attention of the wider community. But at the same time he had recently been contributing at the Talk page of the Visual Arts editor Ceoil, who at that time was talking of retiring from the project. Ceoil was the first to edit at the article, within a few minutes of JNW's start. His edits were, however, esentially housekeeping and he made no additions to the material. Mandarax was next a few hours later, providing a better link to Bertman's blog, and then later the first addition of new material with a short edit sourced from Bertman. Later the same day, JNW added Gauguin's description of the colors, directly contradicting the earlier "strong" description, but without thinking to revise that edit. This was sourced from a Google book,  Naomi E. Maurer's Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom.  The material comes from Gauguin's 1892 letter to Mette, but other than quote the section on colors, JNW makes no attempt to develop Maurer's remarks. A few hours later he quotes material again from Maurer on phosphorescent lights and the native belief that these were spirits of the dead.

This was all the content editing the article received over the next four years until C1cada made his substantial series of edits, amongst other things providing sources and images for all of Gauguin's accounts of the painting and providing a very substantial article on Teha'amana. As we point out above, he was trolled by JNW and Mandarax and ultimately blocked by Aaij for his troubles.

It's clear that only a very small community were ever interested in editing at the article over those four years. Why that is so seems to us a matter requiring explanation. Our own feeling is that Wikipedia unquestionably has developed a reputation of hostility towards new editors. But even amongst the cartel editing at the article, there was no real attempt to develop it; rather an exaggerated respect for its worth, and a consequential disinclination to improve it, despite its manifest defects.

It's not clear to us that there is any real determination amongst the Wikipedia community to better things. Change can only come from outside.