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.
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
Paul Gauguin : D'où venons-nous
? Qu'est-ce que nous sommes ? Où allons-nous ?, 1897
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.
Paul Gauguin: Manaò tupapau (Lesprit
des morts veille) Fin 1892
AlbrightKnox Art Gallery, A. Conger
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."
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
© 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
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
Mario Vargas Lliosa: Le Paradis - un peu plus
Editions Gallimard, Paris, 531 pages (10 April 2003)
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