About Paul Gauguin

Tahiti - The Search For The Primitive (1891-1893)

When Gauguin embarked from Marseilles he was at last alone. All the younger artists who had been thinking of going with him - Bernard, Dr. Haan and Serusier - were left behind. The fact was that neither they, nor many of Gauguin's relatives and acquaintances, had been convinced of the soundness of the venture. His wife, indeed, feared that he was courting disaster. Ironically, only Vincent Van Gogh had argued that it would be logical for the studio of the south to dead on to the studio of the tropics. Once the studio of the south had opened artists' eyes to the intensity of colour juxtapositions produced by Mediterranean (and Pacific) light, they would want to pursue their discoveries further afield. He predicted that colour would play a more important role in modern painting. Gauguin would be the right man to lead such a movement, since he had already proved his capacity to respond to tropical light and colour in the works he had brought back from Martinique. Bernard, for whom travelling with Gauguin was no longer possible, later sought his own artistic fortunes in Egypt.

The search for colour no doubt played a part in Gauguin's thinking, though less of a part than it might have done four years before, when he went to Martinique and was still working in a more or less naturalistic vein. His most recent Breton works, after all, had demonstrated that he could achieve a high intensity of colour with little prompting from nature. A more important consideration was surely that he wanted the stimulus of new, exotic motifs to revive the flagging interests of the "stupid buying public". He had fixed on Tahiti relatively late in his planning. When a merchant seaman, he had probably touched in at the port of Papeete, Tahiti's capital, and he clearly cherished the sailor's enchanted view of the islands of the South Seas where life was reputed to be easy, with food and women always available.

As he did not leave on impulse, nor had he thrown over civilized life (despite having made protestations to the Symbolist artist Odilon Rodon which suggested just such a renunciation), he had taken the trouble to prepare himself with up-to-date information from the colonial office, and immediately before his departure had written to the Minister of Public Instruction requesting support for the artistic mission. His official letter stated: 'I wish to go to Tahiti in order to carry out a series of paintings there of the country where character and light I aim to capture.' He was successful in being granted a letter of official sanction, help with his passage out and a loose commitment to the Ministry's acquiring 3000 franks worth of paintings on his return.

Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a flower) 1891

Evidently, the officially received version of Gauguin's reasons for leaving France differed substantially from the stories offered in the press by such writers as Mirbeau. Not all critics, however, had been as continuously swept up by Gauguin's plight as had Mirbeau. The Belgian critic Emile Verhaeren, in the anarchist journal La Socite Nouvelle, had offered more measured and circumspect observations, usefully placing Gauguin's enterprise within a historical context. 'Another artist who has been drafted into child art is M Gauguin. Whereas M Minne (a contemporary Belgian symbolist artist) looks exclusively at the native art of his own race and is drawn towards the cradle of the European ideal, M Gauguin expatriates his dream to the ladies and even to yet more remote islands. He is off in search of his aesthetic origins. Also in search of total isolation, exile beyond all art that has hitherto been conceived and practised, complete virginity and ultimately, of that year in, year out life, far from everyone and everything, which rinses the eye clean of the impurities of decaying civilizations. ... Ten years ago, it was argued that the artist should devote himself to the art of his own region, study that alone, imprint himself with his native locality, not look beyond the garden wall. Well, doesn't the example of this painter setting off for the remotest unknown spots point up the vanity of all advice!' So in the opinion of this astute contemporary commentator on art, Gauguin was sticking his neck out by leaving France, but he was not alone in setting himself against the grain of naturalism.

On board ship, Gauguin found himself surrounded by respectably dressed pretty bourgeois, all on government missions. In a letter home posted in Sydney, Australia, he stressed his intolerance of such dreary people, and delighted in his physical otherness (he had let his hair grow long) and sense of superiority. These, however, were the very expatriate bureaucrats he came across in his day-to-day life in Tahiti, colonials against whom he set himself with increasing determination and provocation during the course of his exile in Oceania. But was Gauguin as different as he liked to think from his compatriots? His ambition, after all, was to revitalize his mode of production with untapped resources, and as a businessman he sensed that thee was a demand in Europe for the kind of images of a forgotten culture he intended to produce - with its mystery, legend, religion and magic - images that could be contrasted with the over-evolved decadence of the West. Circumstances, French foreign policy, the blossoming of Symbolism with its hatred of the everyday and thirst for the unknown and the primitive - all combined to present a promising picture of the possible outcome of his commercial risk.    

If Gauguin was convinced that he was the first painter to exploit the Oceanic as opposed to the well-worked Oriental terrain, he was mistaken. A fellow countryman, Charles Giraud, had worked in Tahiti some forty years before, turning out Tahitian scenes for the Salon throughout the 1850s. Artists, indeed, sere not new to the Tahitians, for they had encountered such men as Hodges and Parkinson among the crews of the very first European ships to reach their islands in the late eighteenth century. By Gauguin's day, at least one other artist, an American by the name of La Farge, as well as Charles Spitz, a photographer, were busy recording their impressions of the life of Tahiti, no doubt aware, like Gauguin, and as James Cook himself had been in 1769, that it was a way of life threatened with extinction.

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Ia Orana Maria (1891)

In his first letter home to Serusier, posted in November 1891, some five months after his arrival, Gauguin reported on his artistic progress to date. He was working hard but as to the quality of the work, he could not yet judge, 'for it's a lot and it's nothing. No finished painting yet - but a load of research which may be fruitful, many documents which will serve me for a long time, I hope, in France.' Later, he admitted that it would only be back in Paris, when he could see his pictures framed, that he would know whether they were good or not. From the detailed chronology of Gauguin's output during his first stay in Tahiti, worked out by the art historian Richard Field, it is clear that he took time to settle down and produce a painting of any size or complexity. He proceeded relatively cautiously at first, as he had done in Brittany, making small-scale figure sketches and studying the tropical terrain and vegetation before attempting to integrate significant figures into this setting. Such paintings in Montagues Tahitiennes might almost have been produced with a view to discharging the promises he had made to the Ministry. But it was ultimately the Tahitians themselves Gauguin had come to paint, and finding models to pose for him in his studio was a delicate business. Gauguin made something of a false start by spending the first three months in Papeete, a much Europeanized shanty town by the 1890s, where his 'official' sanction may have hindered him as much as it opened circles, it also raised expectations which he was in no position to fulfil. In one of his first letters home to Mette, he boasted that he was being courted by the social elite, the royal family and French government officials, and entertained hopes of making money from portraiture. After a few weeks setting up home in Papeete and finding his way through its relatively rigid social structure (he even donned the appropriate linen suit), he soon showed once again that when it came to producing a fair likeness of a bourgeois sitter he was not the right man for the job. The portrait of Suzanne Bombridge, for instance, who was the English wife of a Tahitian chief, was not well liked.

The reality of colonial life in Tahiti was undoubtedly a disappointment to Gauguin. Although be only occasionally admitted as much in passing remarks, other women accounts and contemporary photographs make clear that this paradise on earth had been severely altered since the first glowing descriptions brought back by European visitors. Indeed, Gauguin's terms, Tahiti must have appeared almost completely tainted by commerce with Europeans. Gauguin was looking for primitive idyll, free from vice and baseness of all kinds, in contrast to the money-grubbing rancour he associated with Europe, and some of his first letters home might lead one to think he had found it. To Mette he wrote enthusiastically, after just three weeks in Tahiti, about the silence and stillness of the tropical nights, the gentle, hospitable ways and physical beauty of the natives. He was waiting, in a new receptive frame of mind, for the expected return of creative ene4rgy: 'I understand why these people can remain hours and days sitting immobile and gazing sadly at the sky. I apprehend all the things that are going to invade my being and feel most amazingly at peace at this moment.' In the account he later wrote of his Tahitian experience, Noa Noa, he elaborated on the feeling of having his over-civilized soul cleaned and rejuvenated in contact with the innocence of the savage, his bad feelings towards his fellow men being replaced by good ones. such claims have become so vulgarized today by holiday brochures that it is hard to believe Gauguin could make them in all seriousness. yet, in the same letter to his wife, Gauguin revealed that Tahiti was not all he had hoped for, lamenting that together with Western diseases and culture's large measure of that essentially European vice of hypocrisy had been introduced by Protestant missionaries! This sounds like a deliberate aunt at his Danish wife, for elsewhere he argued that the influence of the Catholic missions had been equally harmful. In effect, the traditional native beliefs had been destroyed and all but lost from memory in the process of the island's conversion to Christianity.

Bengt Danielsson, an anthropologist who lived for many years in Tahiti and tried the experience of 'going native' for himself, has unveiled much of the reality of Gauguin's existence in the south Seas. After a mater of weeks, living high on the hog in Papeete, those money-grubbing concerns Gauguin had hoped to leave behind him returned with a vengeance. His thoughts were to become ever more desperately fixated on the monthly arrival of the mail-boat, with its possibility of letters and money from France. His own letters home became increasingly querulous in tone as his savings dwindled and the desired funds failed to materialize. he did not hesitate to reproach friends, such as the young poet Charles Morice, whose promises of financial support seemed to have been forgotten. His business concerns were uppermost in these letters, as he chided dealers for their inefficiency, demanded from his wife and from friends that they run errands on his behalf in Paris and give him specific, up-to-date news of his picture sales and critical standing. As had been the case which he first went to Brittany in 1886, the decision he took in September 1891 to leave Papeete for the remoter settlement further found the coast was prompted as much by the necessity of living more cheaply as by any artistic considerations.

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Fatata te miti (Near the Sea) 1892

Gauguin decided to settle in Mataiea, some forty-five kilometres from Papeete, probably on the advice of a Tahitian chief whom he had befriended. Thee he rented a native-style oval bamboo hut, roofed with pandanus leaves. Once settled, he was in a position to begin work in earnest and to tackle serious figure studies. It was probably soon after this that he painted Vahine no te tiare, his first portrait of a Tahitian model. He later recorded how the gird, having understood what he required of her, disappeared, leaving him in agonies lest she should have taken flight, only to return dressed in her lace-trimmed Sunday best. To a large extent, full-length European-style smocks, like the one she is shown wearing, had replaced the traditional Tahitian pareos. The women now spent as much time plaiting straw hats which had to be worn to chapel on Sundays (they had been introduced in 1840 by an opportunistic missionary names Pritchard) as they did weaving garlands of flowers. (Incidentally, Gauguin recorded this typical activity in Deux Jemmes sur la plage.) Gauguin felt he had to work quickly on the portrait lest the model change her mind. If we can believe his account, which certainly has the ring of authenticity, painting these much vaunted Tahitian beauties fully-clothed, let alone naked, was not going to be as easy an undertaking as he had persuaded his painter friends to believe.

By the late summer of 1892 the completed canvas was back in Paris, hanging in the Goupil gallery (Theo Van Gogh's place had been filled by Maruice-Joyant, a poor substitute in Gauguin's view.) From the many subsequent references to this image in his correspondence, it is clear that Gauguin set considerable store by his 'Tahitienne' and by sending her on ahead to Paris, wanted her to serve as an ambassadress for the further images of Tahitian women he would be bringing back with him on his return. He pressed his male friends for their reactions to the girl, rather than to the picture, anxious to know whether they, like him, would be responsive to the beauty of her face. 'And her forehead', he later wrote, 'with the majesty of upsweeping lines, reminded me of that saying of Poe's, "There is no perfect beauty without a certain singularity in the proportion." No one, it seems was quite  attuned to his emotional perception: while Aurier was enthusiastic, excited by the picture's rarity value, Schuffenecker was somewhat taken aback by the painting's lack of Symbolist character. Indeed, apart from the imaginary floral background which harked back to Gauguin's 1888 Self-Portrait, the image is a relatively straightforward one. Recent anthropological work, backed by the use of photography, had scientifically characterized the physical distinction between the different races, distinctions that in the past had been imperfectly understood. Generally speaking, artists before Gauguin's time had represented Tahitians as idealized types, adjusting their features and proportions to accord with European taste. This meant that hitherto he Tahitian in Western art could scarcely be distinguished from his African or Asian counterpart. Unfortunately Charles Giraud's paintings have disappeared so we cannot compare them with Gauguin 's, but this first image by Gauguin suggests a desire to portray the Tahitian physiognomy naturalistically, without the blinkers of preconceived rules of beauty laid down by a classical culture. Naturalism as an artistic creed, though, was anathema to Gauguin; it made the artist a lackey of science and knowledge rather than a god-like creator. He wanted to go beyond empirical observation of this kind, to find a way of painting Tahiti that would accord with his Symbolist aspiration, that would embody the feelings he had about the place and the poetic image he carried with him of the island's mysterious past.

The preparation for achieving this synthesis was to concentrate once again on drawing, not just drawing from nature but 'searching deep within himself', as he explained to Daniel de Monfreid in a latter of November 1891. An instance of what this approach may have involved is provided by Deux fermmes sur la plage, one of the few Tahitian paintings to be dated 1891. In searching for an appropriate pose for the left-hand figure, Gauguin seems to have resurrected and reversed the foreshortened pose of the young Breton shepherdess that he had already used in a variety of guises in earlier works. the generalized landscape setting, which has the effect of pushing the bulky figures up to the surface, has much the same broad sweeping horizontals and arbitrary changes of colour as his recent Le Perte de pucelage. It is not yet recognizably Tahitian, Gauguin seems to have been intrigued by this combination of two female figures engaged in silent dialogue and not only painted a near replica of the composition to send back to Europe (the first version, exceptionally, found a buyer in Tahiti: a certain Captain Arnaud acquired it for 400 francs), but explored the idea in a number of later canvases, complicating the interrelationship on both the formal and the psychological level.

Te faaturuma, which Gauguin translated as La Boudeuse (The Brooding Woman), must be one of the earliest works from the first Tahitian trip to receive a Tahitian title, although the title was clearly an afterthought, written on the canvas not by Gauguin but by Daniel de Monfreid under Gauguin's instructions. While the gesture of head on hand is the traditional emblem of melancholy and harks back to Durer, the pose and physiognomy relate closely to the right-hand figure of Deux femmes sur la plage, expressing that typically Tahitian impassivity Gauguin had remarked on to his wife. Here the setting is more specific and contemporary, with its colonial-style room opening into a verandah, raised above the brilliant green of the landscape beyond. The compact containment of the figure, her carving up this otherwise flat space, might suggest that Gauguin was once more thinking of Degas or looking to Japanese prints for compositional ideas.

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Mahana no atua (Day of God) 1894

One can suggest such visual parallels with some confidence, given that Gauguin had not left Paris empty-handed: on the contrary, he had armed himself with a; collection of visual stimuli, the selection of which must have involved a great deal of heart searching. Several months before leaving France, in fact, he had assured Odilon Redon that he would be taking with him in his baggage a 'whole little world of friends' who would converse with him every day: friends, that is, in the form of photographs, drawings and prints, including the more transportable items in his personal collection, such as Redon's lithographs La Mort. The task of identifying the images in the visual library and their influence on Gauguin's Tahitian work has occupied several scholars and their researches reveal Gauguin to have remained far more dependent on Western sources than might at first appear.

Ia Orana Maria offers one of the clearest instances of the use Gauguin made of this collection of source material and reveals the complex fusion of observation and artifice that made up his working method. This large canvas was the most highly-wrought composition he produced in his first year in Tahiti, and the first where he departed entirely from an observable subject to enter the realm of fantasy. Gauguin considered it a significant and broadly successful work. In its native expression of superstitious faith and its fusion of the supernatural with the everyday, it is comparable to the religious works he had painted to Brittany. Indeed, it was still a motif based on Catholic tradition, for all its exotic, luxuriant setting and Tahitian figures, Gauguin was not yet in a position to essay a subject from traditional native religion. The two praying figures, with their hieratic, primitive poses, were direct borrowings from figures on the stone-carved relief of the temple of Borobudur in Java, of which Gauguin owned a photograph, and this long admired example of primitive religious art also provided him with the stylized foliage that forms a decorative band above th4ir heads, masking the more naturalistically treated mountains. The somewhat disparate elements of the painting were collated from a series of drawings and as such the painting perhaps lacks the simplicity and clarity of statement in the earlier religious images. There are signs of indecision on the canvas, such as the late blocking out of the globular-shaped fruit in the foreground still-life, and the awkward insertion of the angelic messenger, whose hovering presence is easily overlooked in the restless floral patterning, particularly when set against the monumental strength of the Virgin and child. In itself, there was nothing particularly novel about Gauguin's iconography. Angelic salutations were standard Catholic themes, cropping up regularly in the work of the more devout of Gauguin's followers, Charles Filiger and Maurice Denis, and in the work of Salon artists. Although the inclusion of the Christ child seated on his mother's shoulder was unorthodox, Luc-Oliver Merson's Je vous salue, Marie (c. 1885) had used the same device, setting the encounter with Mary in the banal context of the French countryside, with peasant and child returning from the fields, while Bastien-Lepage's famous Jeanne econtant les voix (1879-80) had made a somewhat similar appeal to sentiment and attempted the same difficult fusion of an other-worldly presence with an earthly setting. There was some discernment in the judgement of the critic who, when he saw Gauguin's painting hanging in Paris in 1803, condemned it for being 'nothing but a Bastien-Lepage done-Tahitian style - all it needed was musical accompaniment by a Tahitian Gounod!' Probably, Gauguin was wise to decide against sending this work on ahead to be exhibited in Copenhagen, when the opportunity arose, perhaps aware that he would need to justify and explain it to the critics in person. It was a work whose complexity was calculated to please the Symbolists but whose conservative iconography could well be expected to lay Gauguin open to further attack from his political opponents.

The meaning of Ia Orana Maria is still a puzzle in view of Gauguin's known opposition to the work of the Christian missionaries. Was he making an ironic comment on the way in which Catholicism had been altered and mollified in the process of being assimilated into the lives of the Tahitians, its message understood only in terms of simple, positive images that were in any case part of their daily experience - motherhood and childbirth, for instance? If so, his later painting of 1896 Te tamari no atua, or Naissance du Christ, could be said to make a parallel point. Certainly, the introduction of the Christian concept of sin, which anthropologists agreed was absent from traditional native beliefs, particularly sin relating to matters of sexual and material possession, was widely recognized as one of the most traumatic aspects of Tahiti's colonization by Europeans, and Gauguin was surely making an oblique comment on this when he gave his pictures such titles as What, are you jealous? and When will you marry?

L'Homme a la hache was also painted during this productive period at Mataiea, although according to Gauguin's account in Noa Noa it recorded an incident he had witnessed at Paea. He used a similar vertical format and tripartite configuration to Ia Orana Maria, with a combination of a single, simplified monumental figure in the right foreground and a smaller, stooping figure in the middle distance and a glimpse of a more naturalistically treated seascape at the top of the canvas. Here, the simplification of colour into broad areas, broken up by seemingly arbitrary arabesques, which Gauguin likened to the characters of an 'unknown, mysterious language', makes the image a more abstract one. Gauguin used discreet, cloisonnist contours to give elegant strength to his woodcutter, who seems to epitomize the image of the 'noble savage'.

Marahi metua no Teha'amana (The Ancestors of Teha'amana) 1893

Because this work stands out as such a rare instance of Gauguin's representing an active, working male figure, one is reminded of the fact that it was images of women on which he concentrated throughout his career. Gauguin was, after all, a male artist working for a male consumer market and he was not ashamed to ponder openly to that market at times, in spite of his avowed hatred of the base tastes of the decadent European bourgeois. Vahine no te vi, for instance, se4ms calculated to appeal; a straightforward, if somewhat cliched, image of a Tahitian girl with a mango, Gauguin has given it a decidedly baroque dynamism in the twist of the girl's body, and the emphatic folds of drapery, at odds with the frozen rigidity of pose he consciously cultivated in more 'primitive' works, such as the contemporaneous Ta Matete. The explanation for this, as Field has suggested, again lies in a borrowing. The striking contraposto pose was used by the neo-classical artist Prudhon in his Joseph et la femine de Potiphor, a drawing of which had belonged to Arosa and a photograph of which formed part of Gauguin's portable personal collection. In fact, on his second trip to Tahiti Gauguin made a painted copy of the Prudhon. 

In Ta Maatete, which has loosely been translated as 'We shall not go to market today', Gauguin represented the women who frequented the public square and market of Papeete, the nearest Tahitian equivalent to the night-life district of Pagalle. It was from the ranks of these women that Gauguin had taken his first Tahitian mistress, a half-cast named Titi, but he quickly found her too demanding and financially draining a companion, unable or unwilling to adapt to the 'life of nature' which he tried to lead in Mataiea. Gauguin's adoption of the artifice of the Egyptian frieze configuration for this painting, closely based on a photograph of a Theban tomb painting in the British Museum he had brought with him, indicates the difficulties he was having in finding any vernacular artistic tradition on which to build. He perhaps intended to pass some sort of comment on these town women, who had become used to luxury from constant intercourse with European settlers. (In this land where sexual favours had been offered freely and fearlessly to the first European visitors, the development of a more Western style of prostitution was an inevitable but tragic aspect of the encroachment of Western civilization, as Gauguin was surely aware.) Alternatively, the deliberate fusion of Egyptian with Oceanic cultures may have been Gauguin's way of acknowledging those contemporary anthropological theories which traced the mysterious ethnic origins of the Polynesians back to the most ancient race of mankind, the red-skinned race whose civilization had reached its peak in ancient Egypt. Such theories were cited by Schure in Les Grands Inities, and we know that Gauguin was interested in the cultural and ethnic origins of the people among whom he had chosen to live. For all its artfully primitive flatness, Ta Matete was one of the few pictures in which Gauguin obliquely referred to some of the social realities of Tahitian life. For the most part, he carefully averted his gaze, turned his back on the spectacle of the changes taking place around him and looked to the past for his inspiration.

Te Matete and Vahine no te vi were painted in the spring of 1892, a period when Gauguin was working steadily and well by his own lights. 'I am in the midst of work', he told Mette in April 1892, 'now that I have got to know the soil and its odour, and the Tahitians, whom I draw in a very enigmatic manner, are very much Maoris for all that and not Orientals from the Batignolles.' (The Batignolles was the area of Paris where artists traditionally went in search of exotic models.) Paradoxically, this productive period followed an ominous setback to his health and a spell in hospital in Papeete. He had suffered some sort of seizure and coughed up blood for several days. Having come through relatively unscathed, his optimism was restored and he was grateful for the chance to continue the work he had begun. By taking each day as it came, conserving his energies and organizing his painting programme so that one day's task followed on logically from that of the previous day, he achieved a steady output of paintings, many of them the stunningly beautiful, major works on which his reputation is founded. 

At the end of the first year in Tahiti, Gauguin felt that his achievements were already sufficient to prove to the faint-hearted hat it had been no folly to leave Europe. He was merely frustrated, as ever, by the lack of funds for, and uncertainty over the possible date of, his return to France. By the summer of 1892 Mette, for her part, seemed disposed to believe in him at last, now that she could see some hope of reward for the years of deprivation she and her children had endured. her new confidence resulted from a series of successes. She had managed to sell Gauguin's important early Etude de nu, Suzanne cousant for a good price to Philipsen, a Danish artist, and was being courted by him and Johann Rohde, the joint organizers of Copengahen's Frie Udstillung, the annual Free Exhibition, for some recent pictures by her husband to hang. By chance, she had come across an important article on 'Les Symbolistes' by Albert Aurier, published in the April edition of La Revue Encyclopedique, which hailed Gauguin as the incontestable initiator of the new movement. She had been to Paris and met a number of Gauguin's friends and for the first time been recognized and treated as somebody worthy of consideration on the strength of her husband's reputation. Charles Morice was evidently extremely gallant. She also met the artist Eugene Carriere with Morice and reclaimed the portrait of Gauguin he had painted just before the latter's departure for Tahiti. On the same occasion she possibly approached the esteemed republican politician Georges Clemenceau on her husband's behalf to request his official support for Gauguin's free repatriation. Unbeknownst to him, Gauguin had no grounds for continually chiding his wife for her supposed indifference to his fate. When he eventually heard how active she had been on his behalf, he began to speak once more of patching up their twenty-year old marriage and resuming life together in Europe. 

This was a hopelessly, even callously, unrealistic promise to hold out given the circumstances in which Gauguin then found himself. But Gauguin had an extravagant capacity for self-delusion, for fixing his sights on illusory goals, as he wrily admitted. he and Mette had been estranged for seven years. At the time of writing to her, he was living with a thirteen-year old Tahitian, Teha'amana, whom he had recently taken as a bride with the full blessing of her two sets of parents, natural and adoptive. Then there was the problem to be faced in Paris of Juliette Huet, who had borne Gauguin a daughter in his absence and who was undoubtedly in need of financial support. Gauguin clearly considered such human casualties as necessary to the cause of his art; in any case, they were common enough baggage for a man of his class to carry around. fortunately, Mette Gauguin was the romantic, even if she was temporarily lulled into an optimistic frame of mind by her husband's talk, later, she summed up his attitude to life as one of 'ferocious egotism'.

The main reason Gauguin's work had been proceeding so well was that in the course of his research into the Tahiti of the past, he had made a crucial discovery. In March, 1892 he had been lent a book by a French colonial, Goupil, a two-volume study of Oceanic life by a Belgian, J.A. Moerenhout. Voyages aux lles du Grand Ocean, first published in Paris in 1837, contained a full account of the forgotten religious beliefs and customs of Tahiti, as well as information about its language and literature, political and social affairs. The importance of this document for Gauguin which ironically he could have studied in Paris, as the romantic poet Leconte de Lisle had done before him, lay in the fact that it opened the door to the mysterious Tahiti of legend, giving him access to those pagan rituals which he had imagined from afar. he first hinted at this discovery in a letter to Serusier dated 24 march. he concluded with a postscript, 'What a religion the ancient oceanic religion is! What a marvel! My brain is buzzing with it and all the ideas it suggests to me are really going to scare people off. If people were worried about my old works in a domestic setting, what will they say about the new ones?' It seems probable that Gauguin was in the process of copying sections from Moerenhout's account into his notebook and interspersing them with watercolour sketches. Entitled Ancien culte Mahorie, the notebook is now safely lodged in the Louvre. It remained with Gauguin until his death and although probably not intended for publication, it furnished him with the source material for a number of pastures and was used as the basis for Noa noa.

One of the first paintings to emerge from this period of study, and possibly Gauguin's first attempt at a Tahitian nude, was Vairaoumati tei oa, which he roughly sketched in the same letter to Serusier, describing it as 'truly ugly, truly mad'. According to ancient Tahitian legend, Vairaoumati was the beautiful mortal chosen by the supreme god Oro to be his love and bear his child. She thus became the progenitress of the divine race of the Areoi, a kind of religious order who formed an elite within Tahitian society and lived their lives according to the rules of free love. Gauguin shred the fascination of many Europeans with the concept of unlimited sexual freedom, which had for long been associated with the Tahitians. In the painting, a kind of pagan Annunciation, he represents Vairaoumati naked, seated in the same frozen Egyptian profile that he had used in Te Matete, although the position of her legs and the cloth on which she sits recall Pavis de Chavannes' allegorical figure of Hope. Instead of using the horizontal frieze design, he chose a vertical format which involved s steep perspective and overlapping motifs. When he sketched the composition for Seruiser, Gauguin had not yet inserted the rather awkward figure of the divine seducer Oro into the composition, who looks down on Vairaoumati from the top right-hand corner, much as Gauguin's own face looks down on the naked woman in Seyez amoureuses. Their union is symbolized by the idol placed on the stone altar in the middle distance. 

Just as the nude figure of Vairaoumati was based on artistic sources rather than on a Tahitian model, so too his carved and painted idols were inventions or reconstructions of Gauguin's own. They had to be, since all traces of indigenous Tahitian religious imagery had been lost or destroyed. In Ancien culte Mahorie, Gauguin had made a watercolour sketch of the conjoined figures of the Tahitian gods Hina and Tefatou, evidently inspired by the decorative details and stylized figural forms on a Marquesan oar handle. Like so many of his ideas once they had taken visual form, this was re-used time and again. For instance, it reappears in a woodcut, a ceramic vase and a carved statue that, like Idole a la perle, probably dates from 1892 (Gauguin mentioned in a latter to De Monfreid of around August that year that he was busy carving 'bibelots sauvages' from tree trunks). The imaginary idol also reappears in the background of a number of other paintings, notably Arearea, Nave nave moe and a landscape which he entitled Rarahi te marae, meaning There lies the temple. the sacred hill with its surrounding wall was first schematically sketched in Ancien culte Mahorie, following Moerenhout's description, and then elaborated in stunning colour, both in watercolour and oil, with the wall now fancifully interspersed with death heads. 

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Contes barbares 1902

Perhaps because of the possibility of tying down his borrowings so precisely in this way (at times they are remarkably direct), Gauguin's integrity as an original artist6 has occasionally been called into question, as though there were something shameful about an artist's pillaging the past, or such a thing as innovation without tradition, creativity without source material. surely the interest for the historian in identifying Gauguin's borrowings, whether from Moerenhout or from other art, is not to be downgrade his achievements, but rather to understand his artistic practices. His sometimes repetitive elaboration and recombination of successful pictorial ideas was not essentially different from the methods used by notable contemporaries working in France, Degas, for instance, or Cezanne. In the absence of original Polynesian artefacts to work from, with the rare exceptions of the Marquesan oars and carvings which Gauguin exploited fully, it was hardly surprising that for knowledge of Tahiti's past he should turn to a reliable published account and make heavy use of the portable collection he had brought with him from Europe. Despite Gauguin's claims, it is in a sense reassuring toe discover that the experience of severing himself from his culture did not in fact mean working from a tabula rasa; rather, it threw Gauguin more forcibly back on the enduring monuments of that ejected culture. The identification and study of his sources enables us to understand better to what extent the studio of the tropics was necessary to fire Gauguin's imagination and to what extent the appearance of the works he brought back to Paris was predetermined by the cultural baggage he had taken out with him.

About Paul Gauguin - Confronting the Public (1893-1895)

Tahiti - The Final Years Of Paul Gauguin

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