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Exhibition Review

Gauguin – Tahiti: l’atelier des tropiques


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 December 2003 - To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Paul Gauguin's death in May 1903, an historic exhibition of his paintings, drawings, wood sculptures and illustrated manuscripts opened at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris in October, prior to its arrival in Boston next February.

The exhibition centres on the last twelve years of his life, and in particular, on his masterpiece, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? which has been part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 1936.

Paul Gauguin : D'o venons-nous ? Qu'est-ce que nous sommes ? O allons-nous ?, 1897
Paul Gauguin : D'où venons-nous ? Qu'est-ce que nous sommes ? Où allons-nous ?, 1897
Tompkins collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Photo courtesy of Galeries nationales du Grand Palais

It thus opens on the eve of Gauguin's departure for Tahiti with the two great reliefs, in linden wood, entitled, Be in Love and You Will Be Happy, 1889, from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and Be Mysterious, 1890, from the Orsay Museum, Paris, and from there, explores his first trip to Tahiti, his return to France, and his second journey to the South Seas ending in his death in the small port of Atuona on Hiva Oa in the Marquises islands.

Born in 1848, it wasn't until he was in his late thirties that Gauguin decided he wanted to be a painter. After various careers when he toured the world as a sailor before working as a stockbroker, he finally cast off his image of a family man, and dumping wife and five children, headed for the exotic South Seas, ostensibly to fulfil a contract for the French Ministry of Fine Arts, but in reality lured by the promise of the good life, of sexual freedom and happiness in the garden of Eden which, he said, civilisation had destroyed in Europe.

Several months after his arrival at Papeete, where the forty- three year old Frenchman was more renowned for his sexual feats than his art, he moved to Matateia, a springtime paradise some thirty miles from the capital, and set up house with Teha'amana, the stocky thirteen year old he immortalised in one of his greatest paintings, Manao Tupapau, in 1892.

Gauguin: Mana tupapau
Paul Gauguin: Manaò tupapau (L’esprit des morts veille) Fin 1892
Albright—Knox Art Gallery, A. Conger Goodyear Collection
Photo courtesy of Galeries nationales du Grand Palais

This early 'Tahitian' work, The Spirit of the Dead Watches probably stands unique among his paintings; it is a blend of the sacred and carnal, sombre and funereal, where reality and fantasy meet. The girl looks petrified. She had in fact been left alone in the dark, with no oil for the lamp, and she had mistaken him for the ghost of her ancestors.

Inspired by this macabre incident, Gauguin began the masterpiece the following day, virtually in a trance, working from memory without stopping for the rest of the week, as it proved impossible for the young girl to reproduce the terror she had felt, or the same pose.

In 1892 and 1893, he painted her again and again, in Te nave nave Fenua, and Merahi metua no tehamana, where this time she was wearing a modest, high-collared, long-sleeved dress, with flowers in her hair. He was later to say that these few brief weeks from the end of 1892 to the beginning of 1893 was the best time of his life, both sexually and creatively. Curiously, with Gauguin, the obsessive need for the two activities grew at the same time. He met, desired, and took Maoriana, met, desired and took Jotépha, while at the same time completing over sixty paintings in an explosion of light, exotic landscapes, and half naked men and women.

However, what surprises in Gauguin's paintings, certainly those from the Musée d'Orsay, is the sullen insolence and imperturbability of his women, otherwise legendary for their insouciance, brilliance and laughter, but when questioned, George T. M. Shackleford, one of the exhibition's curators commented instead on what he described as rather a marked sense of wordless communication in Gauguin's groupings of people not expressed in eye contact.

"In fact", he said, " they are often looking in opposite directions. There's an almost telepathic quality in many paintings, insisted upon in order to give them that mysterious psychological questioning, questions that appear again in his titles. What Gauguin wanted was for people to find his paintings mysterious." He also added that the painter had also remarked on Tahitian women's ability to sit, motionless for hours on end, and said it didn't do to explain the mystery, because once you did, it went away."

After his young mistress became pregnant in 1893, Gauguin, penniless, decided to leave for France, but instead of returning to his family, he chose to live with Annah la Javanaise, a tiny fourteen year old who was sent to him as a present. Simultaneously, he organised exhibitions of his work, broke his ankle, which never healed, and planned the series of woodcut prints used to illustrate his remarkable book, Noa Noa, describing his time in Tahiti. But he had no money and his health worsened.

In September 1895, riddled with disease and covered in blistering sores, symptoms of the syphilis he would soon die from, he arrived back in Polynesia where he was warned by the Dr.Lagrange that his prolific sexual activities were serving only to propagate the illness, a fact he is still remembered for in Polynesia today.

He nonetheless set up house with Pahura, another fourteen year old who served as a model for several paintings, including Te Arii Vahine, 1898, and where he worked on his book, before painting six remarkable works prior to starting his monumental canvas, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going?, finished in February, 1898. In the Paris exhibition, four of these works, plus eight smaller works hang next to this masterpiece, and help re-create the atmosphere of the exhibition in Paris over one hundred years ago, where no one wanted the painting of his lifetime. Set in a fantastic landscape of flowers, fruit, running water and golden-skinned women, it found no buyer. His paintings did not sell.

The painter was finally driven out of Tahiti by a population tired of his sexual orgies, illegitimate children, alcohol and drugs. Leaving all behind, he set sail for Hiva Oa, the land of his dreams, in 1901. His paintings and sculptures were thrown into the sea.

Paul Gauguin: Contes barbares, 1902
Paul Gauguin: Contes barbares, 1902
© Marquises Essen, Museum Folkwang
Photo courtesy of Galeries nationales du Grand Palais

The Marquesan years were notable for the construction of his small house, " La Maison du Jouir", or his "House of sexual pleasure", in which he hung forty-five pornographic photographs of women. That, plus his small mistress, bought for the equivalent of two hundred francs, did not endear him to the local population there either.

But the wild beauty of the islands nevertheless inspired him to create one of his loveliest paintings, Contes Barbares, a work full of magic and mystery, and to carve his magnificent painted door frame decorated with voluptuous women and the infamous inscription, "Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses".

The probability was that this giant of modern art was neither. Ostracised there too, this sick and ailing fifty -three-year-old, worn beyond his time, became the laughing stock of all the local school children who allowed him to take off their clothes and fondle them in return for a glimpse of what the locals called his 'dirty' pictures.

Book Tip for further reading:
Mario Vargas Lliosa: Le Paradis - un peu plus loin
Editions Gallimard, Paris, 531 pages (10 April 2003)
ISBN : 2070769135

Patricia Boccadoro writes on visual arts and dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a member of the editorial board of

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