Paul Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in June 1891 just in time to observe the funeral of King Pomare V, the last Maori ruler tolerated by French colonial rule. It was the end of an era and it did not take Gauguin long to regret its passing.
Once the impressive rites for King Pomare concluded, the air of solemnity immediately dissolved. French colonials and the native people each went their separate ways. Gauguin said that the scene reminded him of a “return from the races” back in France.
Gauguin’s disillusionment was compounded by what he found in Tahiti. The capital city of the French colony, Papeete, was a bad imitation of Europe, of “our customs, fashions, vices, and absurdities of civilization.” Gauguin had come there in search of an authentically human lifestyle, one that would inspire and nurture his creative talents.
“Was I to have made this far journey,” Gauguin wrote in Noa Noa, the account of his sojourn in Tahiti, “only to find the very thing which I had fled?”
How Gauguin responded to that question can be seen in the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Gauguin: Maker of Myth. Mounted in collaboration with Tate Modern in London, where it appeared during the autumn of 2010, Gauguin: Maker of Myth presents a wide range of the works that Gauguin created in response to his search for a valid, meaningful way of life. The exhibition includes 120 examples of Gauguin’s amazing artistic oeuvre: paintings, pastels, charcoal sketches, wooden sculptures, ceramics and decorated objects like his exquisite painted fans.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth focuses on the two geographic settings explored by the artist as he sought to free himself from the straightjacket of European academic art. Before voyaging to Tahiti, Gauguin had made extended trips to Brittany, one of the few French provinces in the late 1800’s that still retained some of its distinctive traditions and culture. At the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven, Gauguin experimented with new styles of art, emphasizing bold use of primary colors and elements of religious symbolism.
“I love Brittany,” Gauguin wrote, “I find something savage, primitive here.”
“Savage” was a word that Gauguin used with increasing frequency to describe himself and his art. He called himself a “savage from Peru,” recalling his mother, Aline, a native of that South American nation. Indeed, Gauguin’s art can be described as an effort to cast off the bondage of civilization in favor of life as a “savage.” This was the “myth” he made for himself.
Paul Gauguin was born in 1848, the year of failed liberal revolutions all over Europe. His father, Clovis Gauguin, was a radical journalist, forced to flee France to escape right-wing reprisals. Clovis Gauguin died on the journey to Peru. His wife, Aline, who was the daughter of the early feminist Flora Tristan, took their young son to Lima where he lived until he was seven. Interestingly, the first art seen by the young Gauguin was his mother’s collection of pre-Columbian ceramics. Aline Gauguin’s taste in art was unconventional. She collected ceramic pots and vessels from the age before the Spanish conquest, many of them created as portraits of the kings and warriors of the Moche culture of northern Peru, dating from the first century AD to its collapse around 800.
Thus, from the start of his life, there was the idea of a “savage identity” lurking in Gauguin’s mind.
“You know that I have Indian blood, Inca blood in me, and it’s reflected in everything I do,” he wrote in 1889 to Theo van Gogh, brother to Vincent. “It’s the basis of my personality; I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on primitivism…”
It was actually a rather conventional life that fueled Gauguin’s simmering discontent with the “rotten civilization” of the late 19th century.
After spending his youth in the French navy and merchant marine, Gauguin settled into the humdrum career of a stockbroker and bank executive. He married a Danish woman, Mette Gad, in 1873. A year later he met one of the Impressionist painters, Camille Pizarro, and with remarkable facility began experimenting with the daring, naturalistic style of these revolutionary artists. By 1880, he was exhibiting his work at the Fifth Impressionist exhibition. Successfully balancing his growing reputation as a serious artist with his banking job, Gauguin was able to support his wife and five children in a comfortable middle-class life style.
In 1882, a financial panic devastated the French economy. After Gauguin lost his banking position, he sought to provide for Mette and his children from the sale of his Impressionist canvases. Then, in 1886, the Eighth Impressionist exhibition witnessed the triumph of the “scientific” approach of Georges Seurat. Gauguin was not impressed with Seurat’s time-consuming optical experiments, using thousands of dots of color to create often prosaic images of daily life. Gauguin, was moving beyond a purely Impressionist-style too, but the direction he took led to Pont-Aven in Brittany and then to Tahiti.
In his 1889 oil painting, Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin, Gauguin depicts an episode at the start of his journey to the primitive roots of art. Portraying himself clad in beret and long cape, Gauguin is greeted by a Breton woman in an encounter between traveler and native inhabitant. The landscape surrounding the pair is one of intense color, their meeting depicted with the charm and lack of sophistication of child art.
With Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin, the restless former stockbroker reveals just how far he had traveled from the boulevards and art salons of Paris. The remainder of his journey would take Gauguin to the frontiers of civilization – and then to make one final step beyond.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth explores in detail the effort that it took Gauguin to mount his artistic foray into the realm of myth and symbolism. It was not an altogether easy process. The Breton peasants and townspeople were remarkably unresponsive to Gauguin’s interpretation of their way of life. The people of Tahiti were more willing to pose and came to regard him with awe. Yet, even in Tahiti, Gauguin had to strive with some difficulty to truthfully depict their physical attributes and inner being. Of his first model, Gauguin wrote, “She was not at all handsome according to our æsthetic rules… She was beautiful.”
Gauguin’s initial encounters with “savage” culture can be explored with particular insight in two of his Tahitian works on view in the National Gallery exhibition.
Tahitian Faces, actually dates to Gauguin’s second and final journey to the Pacific. This charcoal sketch, done in the Marquesas Islands, records Gauguin’s twofold approach to the feminine beauty of the women of Polynesia. In pictorial terms, Gauguin captures the essence of a woman of the Pacific, ethereal, seductive and exotic. Balanced by this depiction of sensual attributes is Gauguin’s appreciation of the symbolic status of his model. Her masklike countenance can be appreciated as a goddess of Oceania or as a preparatory sketch for a native Madonna. Peering back to the timeless past of the Maori peoples who voyaged and settled throughout the Pacific, the subject of Tahitian Faces also looks towards a future that is being determined for her by the laws and religion of French colonialism.
The second of these signature works of art is, in many respects, the keystone of the entire exhibition. Merahi Metua no Tehamana, painted in 1893, is a portrait of Tehamana, also called Tehura. Gauguin had married Tehamana, then aged thirteen, the year before. The title of this oil painting may be translated as Tehamana Has Many Parents, an allusion to the fact that the marriage had been arranged between Gauguin and her parents. During the negotiations, Gauguin had initially confused Tehamana’s actual mother and her foster mother.
In the painting, Tehamana is chastely dressed in a “Mother Hubbard” style dress. Covering neck to ankle, this was favored by Christian missionaries as the appropriate dress-code for the girls and women they converted.
Tehamana, with her arching eyebrows and sensuous lips is hardly the model of a demure maiden. She looks away from the viewer, as if trying to catch the eye of the naked female idol painted on the wall. This is Hina, the Maori moon goddess. Tehamana’s spade shaped fan, pointed toward Hina, indicates that the unclothed female deity is her ancestor as well.
The direction of Tehamana’s fan certainly points in the direction that Gauguin’s other paintings of her would take, and indeed the way he would increasingly come to represent the women of Tahiti. The Mother Hubbard dress would be stripped away and Tehamana would appear, in Para na tee Varna ino (Words of the Devil), as a second Eve, a nubile child of nature.
“I am sowing my seed everywhere,” Gauguin declared while in Tahiti, a statement that was both physically and artistically true. Gauguin “went native” in Tahiti, drawing a curtain over his marriage vows to Madame Gauguin, still very much alive in Copenhagen. But while doing so, Gauguin created bold new forms of art, in painting and in sculpture. His radical departure from the accepted norms of western culture represented a powerful renunciation of European academic art.
It would be wrong to interpret Gauguin’s embrace of the lifestyle of Tahiti solely as an expression of South Seas hedonism. Gauguin was one of the few late 19th century artists – Vincent Van Gogh was another – who was fascinated by religion. He was intrigued with the challenge of depicting the authentic spirituality of Breton peasants trying to imagine the details of a Sunday sermon or of a young Tahitian girl haunted by the ghosts of dead ancestors.
Gauguin’s 1888 oil painting, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), is a testament to his search for meaning in the numinous realm of religious belief. Vision of the Sermon is also a watershed work, signaling Gauguin’s embrace of symbolism over naturalistic effect.
Vision of the Sermon presents a group of Breton women imagining the struggle of Jacob with a celestial being, as recorded in Genesis 32:23-34. A tree limb cuts through the picture at an oblique angle, separating the Breton women in their distinctive headdresses from the grappling pair. The wrestling takes place on a field of red, connoting that this is a mystical setting.
“For me in this picture the landscape and the struggle exist only in the imagination of the people inspired by the sermon,” Gauguin explained to a fellow artist, “which is why there is a contrast between the life-size people, who are natural, and the struggle in its non-natural, disproportionate landscape.”
Gauguin’s believed that he had achieved “a great rustic and superstitious simplicity” with Vision of the Sermon. The Bretons, however, did not know what to make of it. Two churches rejected Gauguin’s generous offer to donate the painting to display to their congregations.
The following year, Gauguin returned to sacred themes, attempting with ingenious insight to capture the religious sentiment of common folk. One painting, Breton Calvary, also called The Green Christ, shows an exhausted Breton woman resting by a wayside shrine. Her fatigue reflects the pathos of the sculpted image of Christ in the arms of his mother after his death. Even more brilliantly, Gauguin depicts the crucifixion itself in The Yellow Christ. He used an actual Breton statue, a 17th century carving of Christ on the cross, as his model. We are left to ponder the timeless nature of this painting. Are we viewing Breton women kneeling around an out-door shrine, as with The Green Christ? Or has Gauguin set the crucifixion of Christ in the yellow fields of Brittany, the women in their Breton headdresses being Christ’s mother and the female disciples who stayed with him to the end?
Gauguin continued to use Christian scripture as the basis of major works after he journeyed to Tahiti. One of his most famous works shows a young Tahitian woman and her child, heads encircled by golden halos, modeling as Mary and the Christ child. This painting, Ia Orana Maria (Ave Maria), familiar to art lovers who have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is not included in the exhibition. However, a lovely version of Ia Orana Maria, done in charcoal, chalk and pastel is on view.
Gauguin’s evocation of Christian spirituality after he reached the Pacific islands raises a perplexing question. Why did he feel a need to voyage half-way around the world to paint works similar in many respects to those created during his sojourns in Brittany?
Gauguin’s desire to visit the tropics had been fanned by a brief trip to Panama and Martinique in 1887. He had gone there in an unsuccessful search for loans from a relative, nearly dying from fever. Two years later he visited the Universal Exposition in Paris where displays of art and culture from the European colonies “east of Suez” were on display. Everyone, including Gauguin, was fascinated with the Orient. There was a market for images of Asia and Oceania, especially if these were produced in a spirit acceptable to European sensibility.
But the real reason that Gauguin turned toward the Pacific for artistic inspiration was the sense that the “primitive” spirit, in Brittany and in himself, was being extinguished by the materialism and arrogance of Europe’s “rotten civilization.”
A comparison of two paintings reveals what Gauguin sought in Tahiti, after failing to find it in Brittany.
Fatata te Miti (Near the Sea), was painted in 1892, during Gauguin’s first stay in Tahiti. It shows exactly the atmosphere of natural ease and abundance that he expected to find there. The central figure steps out of her flowery pareo dress ready for a swim. Another, arms outstretched, dives into the inviting blue water. In the background, a man, one the few male figures Gauguin painted in Tahiti, hunts for lunch with a fishing spear. They are surrounded by a riot of inviting hues, pink sand and orange flowers in the foreground. The white flowers dangling from the limbs of the Barringtonia asiatica or Hutu tree resemble shaving brushes, thus giving the tree its nickname. The seed from the Shaving Brush tree was mixed with water by the peoples of the Pacific islands and poured into tidal pools where it dulled the reflexes of fish, making them easier to spear or catch.
By contrast with the good life of Fatata te Miti, the female swimmer in Ondine, painted in 1889, is struggling against frigid green waves off the coast of Brittany. In European folklore, an ondine is a water nymph. This woman can be interpreted as having shed her corset, shirtwaste and other garments of middle-class respectability in an attempt to partake of a more natural life. Gauguin, however, used dense, swirling brush strokes in painting Ondine to produce a menacing texture. The flailing woman has been caught in the undertow of the cruel sea. The message of Ondine is clear. To try and return to nature in Europe is to risk death.
The peril in Ondine was increasingly apparent in Gauguin’s life. When he returned to France in 1893, few of his paintings of Tahiti found buyers. Nor were his carved sculptures and ceramics a success. It is not hard to see why the striking embodiment of the primitive, Oviri, found little favor in the salons of Belle Époque France.
Oviri, which means savage, is more a creature of Gauguin’s imagination than of Tahitian mythology. The skin texture of Oviri is rough and unglazed, while streaks of red color drip down over the base, blood from the wolf she is crushing with her feet. When Gauguin died in 1903, after returning to the Pacific, he asked that Oviri be placed on his grave in the Marquesas Islands. A copy of the stoneware sculpture is there to this day.
Gauguin never gave up on the dream of returning to a life of natural grace and spiritual meaning. His enduring vision is displayed to advantage in his 1898 oil, Faa Iheihe. The translation of the title, To Make Beautiful, sums-up Gauguin’s aspiration and achievement. He had not discovered paradise. He made the world around him a place of beauty.
Despite his lonely, impoverished death, Gauguin succeeded in creating a true myth for himself. But it was not as a “savage” or a painter of the primitive that he made his greatest contribution. On his canvases, Gauguin recorded the dying away of traditional cultures, both in France and in Tahiti. The remnants of these fading ways of life reseeded and cross-fertilized in his mind, reappearing as uniquely beautiful expressions of the global civilization of modern times.
Gauguin’s myth is that of the cycle of death and rebirth, the awakening to life of a new Golden Age.
Gauguin: Maker of Myth appears at the National Gallery of Art, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20565, February 27 – June 5, 2011