Art in Europe,  English

[3/3]Paul Gauguin: In the footsteps of Fletcher Christian (caption of the Bounty)

At the autumn of 1891, Gauguin decided to leave the civilized city of Papeete for the village of Mataiea where aborigines were living a natural life. He painted the sand on a shore, immense trees and mountains. He caught the effects of the blazing sun revealed by the sculpted volume of the tree. It mattered to him to give each painting a title in Tahitian. (Fatata te Mouà (At the Foot of a Mountain).

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Fatata te Mouà (At the Foot of a Mountain), 1892. Oil on canvas, 68 x 92 cm.
The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

He delineated flats of bright colors patches with contours. Little figures of Tahitian women – whom Gauguin never stopped drawing pictures of doing their activities – began to appear in the landscape. (Matamoea (Landscape with Peacocks).

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Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks), 1892. Oil on canvas, 115 x 86 cm.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts , Moscow.

Little by little, Gauguin got used to his new environment. He admired young Tahitian women, their sturdy beauty and their spontaneity. But Gauguin kept in mind everything that he had seen at the Louvre and during his travels around the world. The real market scene gets transformed into a stylized frieze recalling the memory of friezes in ancient Greece, Egyptian bas relief and Gauguin’s own Breton paintings (Ta Matete’ (The Market)).

The painter’s wife was called Tehura. She knew all the customs of aboriginal life, told Gauguin the local legends and initiated him to Tahitian gods. Gauguin painted a Tahitian Madonna wrapped in a red pareo with a Christian aureole round her head. (La orana Maria (Ave Maria).

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La Orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891. Oil on canvas, 113.7 x 87.6 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

One particular painting sums up this mature style: Tahitian Pastorals. In this painting a Tahitian woman plays the vivo whilst another listens to it motionlessly. Her blind look, the ritual vase and the strange orange dog in the foreground constitute a network of mysterious symbols. The exotic world here is made of patches of colors – red, green, pink, black, yellow – delineated with contours.

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Tahitian Pastorals, 1892. Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 113.7 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

On June 4, 1893, Gauguin left to return to France. The period before his departure was difficult. Gauguin became seriously ill; he lacked money to buy canvases but the state that he was in didn’t allow him to work. The distant tropical islands now appeared to him like a paradise. In Paris, he painted something strange that he called Nave Nave moe which meant ‘Delicious mystery’ according to him but ‘Sweet dreams’ would be a more accurate translation. Nowadays that painting is known by the name that it received later, Delectable Waters. On June 28, 1895, he said goodbye to his friends and got on the train for Marseille where he embarked for Oceania again.

Gauguin arrived in Papeete on September 9, 1895. He had brought with him two landscapes that he had painted in Brittany (Breton Village under the Snow). Many things had changed in Tahiti: civilization had brought its sad fruit. The colonial authorities could not maintain order and the army could turn up on the islands at any time. Gauguin was annoyed by everything from political speeches to electric lighting. He started to envisage going further to Saint- Dominique in the Marquisas archipelago where he had planned to live a quiet life cheaply, but things were not that simple. Gauguin had brought back a range of infections from Europe.

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Breton Village under the Snow, 1894. Oil on canvas, 62 x 87 cm. Musée d’Orsay , Paris.

He had no money left at all. He was in total despair. In April 1897, he got the news of his beloved daughter’s death, Aline, at twenty. He hardly had any energy left to paint. Nevertheless he carried out some remarkable works. In 1896, he painted Te arii vahine (The King’s Wife). It shows a beautiful Tahitian woman of which Pahura is likely to have been the model; she is represented like Giorgione’s Venus or Manet’s Olympia. And the artist was right to be proud: his Tahitian Venus/ Olympia can stand aside its classical predecessors.

Suffering and adversity forced Gauguin to try and interpret the world in a philosophical way. Several drawings and painted studies were the basis for a large painting, summing up, his whole life in a way: Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?

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Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-1898.
Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts , Boston.

Painting was Gauguin’s only language and one that was unconventional. On several occasions, he managed to get some work doing drawings for the civil service. Misfortune continued to strike him: he could not paint anymore, his house was destroyed, rats ate his drawings and, being ill, he did not manage to send his paintings on time for the World’s Fair of 1900. At last on September 10, 1901, he managed to embark on a ship for the Marquesas Islands.

He arrived on Hiva Oa Island and settled in Atuana with a new woman, but life was no easier there. Gauguin was still as sick as before. Despite all these hardships, Gauguin carried out many paintings during the last years of his life. There are paintings of a particularly tragic tone amongst the scenes of local life that he painted in Tahiti and Hiva Oa. In 1896, Pahura gave birth to a girl who lived for ten days only. That was probably the trigger for the painting Baby (Nativity).

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Baby (Nativity of Tahitian Christ), 1896. Oil on canvas, 66 x 75 cm. The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

An ugly Tahitian woman with a dead child and the green Angel of Death are represented with a traditional Christian nativity scene in the background. Those gloomy paintings amplified Gauguin’s exceptionally dark palette. Because he did not have the canvases that he needed, he painted on burlap, often with nothing under it hence the colors were absorbed by the material and the painting was irreversibly darkened.

Gauguin’s last house in Atuana, built in 1902, showed joy in life in its entire decor. Gauguin called it the Maison du jouir (House of enjoyment). That name was represented on a horizontal panel with naked female figures along both edges. There were sculptures everywhere in that house, and no reminder of Christian art; these sculptures were intensively primitive. The bedroom’s entrance is trimmed with wooden panels bearing Gauguin’s favorite watchwords: Soyez mystérieuses (Be mysterious) and Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses (Be in love and you will be happy). These basreliefs are some of only a small number of surviving artifacts from the last period of his life. Gauguin died on May 8, 1903. He was buried on a hill near.

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