For me it is extremely difficult to separate Gauguin the artist from Gauguin the man. When I was preparing material for a short entry on a blog about one of his works, I was struck by the variety of narrations in the stories about the paintings that Gauguin painted. When describing them, the authors often recall the “noble” motives that guided the painter in showing native communities. It was supposed to be a search for “native” values, reaching the “traces of the lost past” in Tahiti culture. And yet his travels and searches were not aimed at finding the truth about the community he met, but at confirming his idea of it. Thus, he followed the path previously set out by other European writers and artists who together created faith in the existence of the “noble savage”, a community living in a state of original innocence that can “heal” a European “spoiled” by civilization. They were looking for this road to paradise.
When in 1891 Gauguin set off to Tahiti in search of freedom from the convenances and principles of European civilization, he personally made sure that they went with him. Not only did he take with him studies on Tahitian culture and religion by French-speaking travellers – Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout’s Voyage aux îles du Grand Océan of 1837 and Edmond de Bovis’ État de la société tahitienne à l’arrivée des Européens of 1855 – containing the “knowledge” lost by the people of Tahiti. He also took European photographs, drawings and engravings, which served him as a source of inspiration for Polynesian compositions. He himself made sure that they obscured his view of what he met in Polynesia and what he wanted to keep “pure”.
Gauguin’s artistic journeys were preceded by events from his childhood. In 1849, as a boy less than two years old, he and his family set off on a trip from France to Peru. His mother sought financial support from her relatives. The grandmother of the future artist – Flora Tristan was the illegitimate daughter of the Peruvian aristocrat Mariano de Tristana y Moscoso. During the journey, Paul lost his father, but gained rich relatives, among whom he spent his childhood pampered in luxury. However, the idyll did not last long and ended in hostility from his Peruvian relatives. Ms. Gauguin, deprived of a livelihood, was forced to return to the grim reality of France with her children. However, Paul will carry the image of a lost, exotic paradise under his eyelids all his life.
The dream of faraway lands persecuted Gauguin. Before he decided to pursue an artistic career, he enlisted in the merchant navy to pursue his dream of traveling. However, after his mother’s death in 1867, he settled down in Paris and started working as a stock market official. At that time he was quite successful, in 1873 he decided to marry Mette-Sophie Gad – Dane living in Paris.
After the crash of the French stock exchange in 1882, Gauguin decided to give his full commitment to painting, which he had practised as a hobby until then. Mette was certainly not delighted when, after years of a prosperous life and the birth of five children, her husband suddenly lost interest in supporting his family. Deprived of their livelihood, Mr and Ms Gauguin first moved to Mette’s hometown Copenhagen. However, Paul no longer had any eagerness to work in trade, and his wife was tired of bearing the entire burden of supporting the family. Tensions grew between them. Paul returned to Paris in 1885. His marriage began to fall apart, and Mette finally broke up with him in 1895.
Gauguin has entered the path of seeking primary innocence. It began inconspicuously in the plein-air workshop in the summer of 1886 in Brittany in the Pont-Aven colony. There he joined a befriended group of artists, tempted by the low cost of living. At this stage, he was already disappointed with impressionism as an empty form of communication, focused only on the aesthetic effect. He was looking for new ways to express symbolic content. To this end, he turned his attention to non-European art – from Africa and Asia – which offered means to express mystical symbolism and was full of vitality. For similar reasons Gauguin was inspired by the Pont-Aven community, which followed traditional Christian values and avoided the temptations of the great world. The artist’s compositions from that period are filled with figures of modest Brittons busy with simple, everyday activities.
Gauguin worked in Pont-Aven in the following years, with time a group of artists gathered around him who shared his artistic vision and reached for similar formal means. They are known today as the Pont-Aven school, which draws inspiration from folk art and uses the technique of cloisonism. It consisted in building compositions from forms of consistent color surrounded by a strong contour. In his works, Gauguin explored mystical content more and more deeply, making vivisection on the relationship between man and the sacrum. At this stage his field of interest was Christianity.
The Vision after the Sermon is undoubtedly the best known picture from the “Breton” period. It shows the vision that Breton women experience after hearing a sermon on the biblical story of Jacob’s fight with the Angel. The women that gathered in a circle on a square under a tree become witnesses of the biblical struggle. The line between their actual location and the events described in the story disappears. Gauguin used the new rules of art that was free from imitation of nature and principles of perspective to show the state of a deeply internalized vision.
Exoticism and a passion for wildness gradually slipped into Gauguin’s work. In 1887 he travelled to Panama and spent several months on Martinique in the Caribbean Sea. As a French citizen he was in a comfortable position to travel freely within the colonies subordinated to France. Thanks to the principle that existed at that time, in case of bankruptcy, he was guaranteed to return “home” at the expense of the state. Gauguin, who was always struggling with financial problems, took this opportunity to enjoy freely the charms of the simple life of the local community of Martinique, which he immortalized in his paintings. It was also an opportunity for him to make contact with the Indian community living there and learn about the symbolism new to him. The works created during this period reveal a fascination with the exotic location and its inhabitants. Thus, the fever of the tropics slowly took root in the artist’s imagination.
Call of Wilderness
Gauguin was looking for alternative ways not only for his artistic path but also for life. His creative activities were carried out, among other things, by creating ceramic sculptures, such as a vessel in an anthropomorphic shape kept at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The artist himself described it as his self-portrait, “the image of Gauguin the savage”. This ferocity is not only about showing a grotesque face deformed by a grimace, but also about the choice of the form, inspired by folk craftsmanship. In this way, Gauguin rejected the sublimation of the academic art, reaching for the raw, ” primitive” way of creation. He chose “wildness”, which was supposed to give him freedom from the imposed rules of creation, as well as the principles of civilization in general. He was increasingly drawn to exploring the wild side of his own nature.
The Self-Portrait with the Yellow Christ is a kind of farewell to Pont-Aven period and also to Europe. Gauguin showed himself in the studio, his painting Yellow Christ, which was created two years earlier, is visible behind him on the easel. Its composition is shown in a mirror image so that the Saviour’s head leans over the artist’s figure, symbolically taking care of him. On the opposite side, a ceramic anthropomorphic pot is shown. In both works, Gauguin gave his features to the figures depicted – Christ and the grotesque creature. Thus, in the painting from 1891 we can see a kind of triple self-portrait, reflecting the artist’s internal rupture. On the one hand, he was looking for support in the world he knew, on the other – he was aware of needs of his untamed temperament.
Escape to Paradise
Gauguin sought a “paradise on earth” where he could freely create and explore the savagery of his nature. He sought a place away from European civilization and its limiting principles. His choice fell on Tahiti, an island in the Pacific which was a French colony.
Undoubtedly, this fascination was fuelled by a visit to the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889, in which typical Tahitian houses, built especially for this occasion, were recreated. The role of “hostesses” was played by ten Tahitian women brought to France. Gauguin bragged to a friend that he managed to arrange an appointment with one of the women. It is possible that Gauguin’s idea of Tahiti as a place where women are freely accessible and unconstrained by Western prudery was thus shaped.
In 1890 the artist had decided to depart. He was so overwhelmed by financial and family problems and lack of appreciation for his art that his escape to Tahiti seemed to be the only possible move. In his imagination, this place was a paradise on earth – far from European civilization, its norms, its conventions and hardships. It was both at the end of the world and conveniently located in a safe area subordinated to the French government, which guaranteed a free return home.
Tahiti, the First Time
Gauguin set off to Polynesia in April 1891. However, instead of the original civilization, he ended up in a colonial town. Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, made use of all possible achievements of civilization. Women also did not fulfill the artist’s imaginations. Instead of easily accessible half-naked figures warming up in the sun, he met persons happily wearing so-called missionary dresses. These were long-sleeved, ankle-length outfits promoted by the missionaries. Women, on the other hand, considered them to be something exotic and fashionable.
The woman portrayed by Gauguin in the year of his arrival decided to wear this outfit when she visited the painter. She undoubtedly perceived this dress as a festive one, she probably wore it for Sunday masses. For Gauguin, however, it was a sign of “spoiling” of local “original” culture by European morality.
In search of “purity”, Gauguin left Papeete and moved to the village of Mataiea. There he sought inspiration for his work, freedom from European conventions and a comeback to a state of innocence. On his canvases he created his own vision of the local community and its culture, which he expected to bring him salvation.
Gauguin later wrote down a travelog, published in 1901 and entitled Noa Noa. This was intended to explain his paintings and describe his experiences in Tahiti. However, as contemporary critics noted, the content of the book was largely fantasized by the artist, as well as taken from publications by French researchers.
He described, among other things, the creation of the painting Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch). Teha’amana, whom the painter called Tehura, served as a model. She was his first “local wife”, only thirteen years old at the time of the “marriage”. In the Tahitian language she was called vahine, which meant “woman”.
Based on an account recorded in Noa Noa, Gauguin was to be inspired by an event in his life to create a Manao tupapau painting. The painter was to find his partner terrified of the darkness when he returned home at night. He showed the girl lying naked on her belly with her buttocks exposed. As a source of her fear, he pointed out a black-dressed figure sitting in the legs of the bed – it was to be tapapau, the demon of the night. From the letters in which he described this painting, we can learn that Gauguin decided to show the ghost as an old woman, rather than a monstrous creature, to make the composition easier for Europeans to understand. And easier to sell. In his letters he also commented on the arrangement of Tehura – in his opinion, no European girl would like to be shown in this way, but in his opinion, this was not a problem for any of the Maoris.
Gauguin was fascinated by local stories and legends, especially those related to the mysterious Brotherhood of Arioi and the war god ‘Oro’ they worshipped. Since they were mainly based on accounts without illustrations and Tahitian models were not available to him, the painter relied heavily on his own imagination. During the first year he created about twenty paintings and a dozen woodcuts. One of them was Te aa no areois (The Seeds of the Areoi) depicting the earthly wife of the deity – the most beautiful of women – Vairaumati. From their relationship a new race of people was to be created. Researchers believe that Teha’amana posed for her as well.
If we take a closer look at this composition, we can easily see the various influences that guided Gauguin. Patterns from ancient Egypt are clear in the hieratic pose of the figure, Japanese in the use of a flat colour patch and lack of chiaroscuro, and the position of the arms resembles the figures from the relief in the Indonesian temple Borobudur. The work of the French symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes should be mentioned as an inspiration from the West. Promoted in Gauguin’s stories the vision of novelty of his art, inspired only by local patterns, loses its power. Rather, it should be understood as an eclectic language that draws from all of the patterns known to the artist, which he has met in Europe.
In the painting Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana (Merahi metua no Tehamana), in the figure of Teha’mana combine native and Western elements. She wears a modest missionary dress, holds a Polynesian fan in her hand and has characteristic tiare flowers attached to her hair. She sits motionless and averts her gaze, taking on the role of a guardian of mysterious signs and symbols shown on the wall behind her.
Gauguin borrowed these forms from various cultures – sculpted memory boards (rongo-rongo) from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and from mask from Oceania and Japan. Therefore, they are not traditionally local forms that he would encounter in the everyday life of the Tahitian people. It should be considered as a free reference to the cultural origins of Teha’amana. Given that her family came from the Cook Islands and that she was born in Huahine, another of the Society Islands, Gauguin probably perceived her as representative of the general Polynesian culture, which was both ancient and extended beyond Tahiti.
At the same time, the use of hieroglyphic writing from rongo-rongo boards (which he copied from a photograph he collected in Papeete) was intended to arouse interest and to surprise the Parisian audience. In the same way as placing the Tahitian title on canvas. Gauguin was still an artist-tourist who never fully understood Tahitian culture. He used it as a theme in his paintings to emphasize its otherness, poetry and to highlight its sensual potential. He did not care about understanding neither who Teha’mana was nor her relationship with her family. Instead, he wanted to kept her in the veil of myth and exotic story.
Before the end of July 1893, Gauguin decided to leave Tahiti and never saw Teha’amana again.
Gauguin returned to France in August 1893, motivated by the vision of an inheritance from his uncle. In Paris, he continued to produce paintings on Polynesian themes, especially since he managed to sell a number of works that he exhibited at the Durand-Ruel gallery. He rented an apartment in Montparnass, where he organized weekly art salons. He generated an atmosphere of exoticism around him – he wore Polynesian costumes and maintained an affair with Annah the Javanese, a teenage beauty he “looked after”. He portrayed her naked, proudly sitting in a blue armchair and boldly looking into the viewer’s eyes. Her body emanates sensuality, her gaze is daring. At her feet, resting on a green footstool, sits Taoa the monkey, a gift from the painter himself.
Gauguin was careful about the consistency of his artistic brand, he gave the portrait of Anna also a title in the Tahitian language: Aita parari te tamari vahine Judith. However, it does not refer to the model. It should be translated as Little Judith is still a virgin, which is a rather rude joke from the affection that the teenage daughter of his neighbours had for the artist. Judith Molard was thirteen when Gauguin appeared in her life. She was delighted to hear about his faraway travels and his marriage to a girl her age. She quickly became fond of him with her youthful love and became jealous of Annah the Javanese. Judith’s mother, however, did not allow any closer contact between Gauguin and his daughter, considering his questionable reputation. It is difficult to determine clearly what guided Gauguin when he decided to put this rather despicable inscription on the painting.
Polynesia – the road without return
The trip to Europe soon proved to be a fiasco for Gauguin. Despite initial interest in his works, he was neglected in the art market. His sculpture of the Tahitian goddess Oviri was removed from the Salon in 1895. The embittered and criticized artist was again seeking rescue in his trip to Tahiti in June 1895.
Unlike the disappointment and failure he suffered in Paris, Gauguin’s life as a colonial artist was rather comfortable. He made a living by selling paintings and was supported by his lovers of his art, he built a house and bought a carriage with a horse. In short, he was able to afford almost big-city luxuries.
Gauguin invariably explored local mythologies and beliefs. He painted this enigmatic composition depicting an animal deity accompanied by an angel during his second trip to French Polynesia. He borrowed the title from a collection of poems by Charles Leconte de Lisle. His Poèmes Barbares (Barbarian Poems) from 1862 are full of creatures inspired by the author’s ideas about Tahiti. Even though Gauguin’s knowledge of local customs and beliefs was more extensive and well-established than that of the poet, his composition is similarly intertwined with various mythologies. The animal was identified as Ta’aroa, the Tahitian deity that is the creator of the universe. However, the winged, feminine figure, who raises her hand to the height of her chest and turns her eyes away, combines elements of both Christian and Buddhist tradition.
Gauguin’s partner during his second stay in Tahiti was Pahura (Pau’ura), the neighbors’ daughter in Puna’auia, who was fourteen and a half years old when the forty-eight year old painter took her as his vahine. The girl gave birth to two of his children, of whom the daughter died in infancy. The second, a boy, was raised by herself after she refused to accompany Gauguin to the Marquesas, away from her family in Puna’auia.
Pahura was waiting for the birth of the first child during the Christmas period. In the painting, Gauguin decided to present her as Mary of Nazareth just after she gave birth to Jesus. He used the repertoire of symbols associated with Nativity scenes – the presence of people and animals gathered around the animal manger in one room, a winged figure assisting with the care of the baby and halos around the heads of saints. He also conveyed truth about the real event, which belonged to his life as well. The young body of Pahura lying on the bed is extremely poignant, the girl seems to be half asleep with her head slightly turned towards the baby. She is accompanied by a mysterious figure holding a newborn child in her arms.
Pahura returned in a painting created the following year. A naked girl lies on the bed, we see her wide hips rising up against the backrest of the bed. She doesn’t look at us, her eyes run away somewhere outside the painting, away from us. In the background behind her there are two figures of women facing each other and busy talking. A black bird sat on the windowsill observing the inside of the room. To the left of it, the painter placed the inscription NEVERMORE, a clear reference to a poem by Edgar Alan Poe. In the „Raven”, these words are an answer to the subsequent questions of the grieving poet and herald irretrievable loss.
A few months before this painting was painted, Pahura lost their child. At about the same time, the artist received information from Europe that his beloved daughter Aline died of tuberculosis. The woman in the painting and the painter who created it seem to be depressed. She sinks into herself, cuts herself off from the world around her. He reaches for dark colours and literary references, from a world he has rejected. Death has found them in the paradise in which Gauguin has hidden himself from all misery.
The dramatic events of his life, balancing on the verge of bankruptcy, and deteriorating health were increasingly deepening Gauguin’s depressive states. Towards the end of 1897 he completed a monumental work, which he titled in the form of questions that bothered him: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? He saw it as his ultimate artistic testament.
Gauguin moved to Hiva Oa, a place where he felt Western culture had not yet managed to destroy the native one, as it did on Tahiti. His attention was drawn to this mysterious figure with long hair, in a short blue tunic, with a red cloak cast on the shoulders, whom he met in his town of Atuona.
Some people recognize it as Haapuani – the best dancer in the area and a famous sorcerer who explained the rituals and customs of the island to Gauguin. He belonged to a group of mahu, representatives of the third sex, men who identified themselves as women. Their presence was valued in the Polynesian culture and even the Christian missions did not manage to change that.
For the mahu there were suitable songs, dances and public ceremonies that could not have taken place without them. They made a living from their work as domestic helpers: cooks, child carers and launderers. Even Christian colonizers made use of their skills, in accordance with the local rules. If we look closely enough at other Gauguin’s compositions from Polynesia, we will also recognize the androgynous mahu characters in them.
Conflict with the Church
In the last years of his stay on the Marquesas, Gauguin has become increasingly critical of colonial society. Above all, he believed that missionary Catholic work had damaged the indigenous culture. In his writings he advocated the separation of the French state from the official French religion.
Gauguin got into conflict with the Church, and above all with the local strict and decisive bishop Joseph Martin, who from 1878 tried to enforce Church-sanctioned practices on the islands. The fact that the painter built a house on land bought from the mission certainly did not help to establish a positive relationship. The house has been called the House of Pleasure for all-night parties. Towards the end of his life, Gauguin put a mockery on the bishop and decorated the railing of the house stairs with two carved posts.
In this work “Père Paillard” (Father Lechery) and the accompanying sculpture of the local woman Thérèse, Gauguin wanted to underline the hypocritical behaviour of the self-righteous priest, which was widely known to have had an affair with Thérèse for many years. The sculpture is a caricature portrait of the bishop: his head has the horns of the devil, and a snake winds up on his back, reminiscent of the fall of the first parents. The compact, vertical form resembles a Maori carved storage post that Gauguin may have seen in New Zealand. Again Gauguin combined Christian and Polynesian forms. Thus he criticized the church, which worked tirelessly to eliminate the local culture and at the same time it did not follow the preaching rules itself.
Two years before his death as a 53-year-old man, Gauguin took vahine again, a fourteen-year-old girl named Vaeoho, also called Marie-Rose. The painter was already seriously ill by then, his body had been suffering from syphilis-related diseases for many years and needed care. Vaeoho took care of Gauguin, but when she got pregnant, she decided to go back to her family and raise a daughter among them.
His favourite model at the time was Tohotaua, his cook’s wife. His fascination with her unusual beauty – she had red hair – made the painter immortalise her several times in his compositions. Just like in The Girl with a Fan from 1902.
The painting was created on the basis of photograph. We can observe that the girl was posing in a costume covering her breasts, but the painter decided to skip this element and show her half-naked to the waist. This is difficult to explain by his desire to avert Christian morality. Her dress had the most Polynesian character. This reveals the complexity of Gauguin’s motivation, who sought paradise not only as an artist but also as a man.
The fugitive in paradise
Paul Gauguin has spent his entire life searching for a place where his dream of paradise on earth would come true. And like many before him, he believed that fleeing to the end of the world could offer him freedom from all burden. But, to paraphrase a Chinese proverb, at the end of the world you will only find what you have brought there yourself.
His view of the culture of the various communities living in French Polynesia was full of good motives as well as disturbed by his own needs. The battle he fought against the influence of Christianity and Western civilization on the reality of Polynesia was aimed at protecting the values he envisioned, not those that actually belonged to the people living there. He was also not consistent in his efforts. As we have seen, in his art, Gauguin very often used references to a resource of European patterns and formulas to show the Polynesian reality.
Throughout all his stay, Gauguin remained an observer of exotic culture, but never became a part of it. He took from it what he thought was attractive and different, but it remained foreign to him. For all my life I have had the impression that the Tahitian women in his paintings usually run away with their gaze. This makes a rather disturbing impression as if they do not want to be seen, and their presence in the paintings is an effect of extortion. Now I understand that Gauguin was a greedy observer, devouring all the otherness of the Polynesian world in the hope of escaping from himself and finding his way to paradise.