Painters in Paradise

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) – Tahiti

Oceania has been a magnet for European artists ever since the first European sea explorers took sail with artists on board, to record the natural world, and the people they discovered. We will look at the work of those artists in future journals, but, it seems logical to start with the best known Western artist whose works are linked to the region, Paul Gauguin. His evocative, vibrant paintings, drawings and sculptures of the people, landscape and mythology of Tahiti are legendary in themselves.

What was it about Oceania that appealed so much to the early artists, including Gauguin? It clearly lies in the fascinating visual appeal, not only for the artists of the nineteenth century but for artists and photographers today; the incredible sharp, clear quality of light, the wonderful palette of colours, from the verdant foliage to the splendid vibrancy of the aquatic to the sensually rich paradise that contrasts dramatically against the greyer realities of life elsewhere. Just browse our images to see the diversity and richness of the human and physical environments of Oceania. We still find the imagery breathtaking, no matter how many times we visit the region.

Image: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Much has been written about Gauguin’s life and work, so rather than repeat what detail you can explore elsewhere, it seems more relevant to look at what remains of his life to be discovered when you visit Tahiti. It should be said that you will be very disappointed if you hope to see much, if any, of his artwork in situ. The paucity of Gauguin originals in the place of their origin, lies in the value of the artwork to collectors and galleries in Europe. One of the best collections is in the Hermitage Art Museum, housed in the former Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg, bought, pre Russian Revolution, by a wealthy industrialist, Sergey Schchukin for his private collection.  Unfortunately for Schchukin they were appropriated by the Bolsheviks and put under lock and key along with his extensive collections of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh. As Stalin was to decree, these artworks were to be kept from public sight owing to their depiction of the, “decadent bourgeois culture of the imperialist age”, but I digress.

Of all the wondrous and aesthetically rich islands of Oceania, why did Gauguin’s artistic eye draw him to Tahiti? Apparently he had read a highly romantic novel, The Marriage of Loti (1881) written by a young Frenchman, Louis Julien Viand, in which he recounts his experiences as a young midshipman on a French frigate that made a lengthy stopover in Tahiti. Time enough for Viand, nicknamed ‘Loti’ by the locals, to fall in love and marry Rharuhu who he had met at the foot of the Fautaua Falls, the description of which is described in such fulsome terms that it inspired Gauguin to seek out Loti’s dream like idyll.

Nothing remains of Gauguin’s first year of living in Mataiea, some distance from Papeete, except of course the sixty-six paintings and some dozen wooden sculptures that he took back to Paris. What these works do show us is Gauguin’s artistic response to the Polynesian inhabitants he painted and in particular, his favourite subject, his thirteen-year-old Tahitian ‘wife’, Tehamana. Controversy still reigns at Gauguin’s depiction of young nude Tahitian women, not so much as in the earlier days, of his artistic interpretations of them, but more to do with his obvious exploitation, though his sexual relationships, with these women. The debate in fact rages today, over exhibitions of his work in world renowned galleries that fail to acknowledge this fact.  I leave you to find out about that yourself from the numerous articles on the topic. Nevertheless, his painting of two women, When Will You Marry (1892) sold in 2014 for $US210 million and more recently (December 2019) a small work depicting a Tahitian nature scene, sold for $US10.5 million. Typically, of many artists of that generation, Gauguin died very sick and in poverty. What he would make of these exorbitant prices for his work one can only imagine.

Gauguin’s last breath was on May 8, 1903 on Hiva Oa in The Marquesas archipelago. He had moved there in 1901 after experiencing problems with the Tahitian government and a disillusionment with the subjects of his work. This appeared to be a feeling shared by the Tahitians. The Marquesas seemed to offer better prospects, “I think in the Marquesas, where it is easy to find models (a thing that is growing more and more difficult in Tahiti), and with new country to explore – with new and more savage subject matter in brief – that I shall do beautiful things.” [Paul Gauguin, Letter to George Daniel de Monfreid, Jine 1901]

The Marquesas offered then as they do today a vastly different landscape to that of Tahiti. Rugged basalt peaks of crumbling volcanoes lost in the clouds, tower over the narrow gorges extending into the valleys and rivers. These massive islands with sheer cliffs battered by ocean waves seem to belong to a separate universe to the tranquil lagoons of other Oceania islands. Dotted along the rugged coastline are deep and wide bays offering calm haven to the sea traveller. Rich beauty abounds for the artist, writer and adventurer to explore. Discovered in 1595 by a Spaniard, Alvaro de Mendana, and named after the wife of the Viceroy of Peru, Marquise of Mendoza, the Marquesas have been marked on nautical charts for centuries and therefore have had all manner of sea adventurers anchor in their bays. These islands deserve a travel entry of their own, so look out for future blogs in which we explore those who have discovered their raw beauty and immortalized it in paint and words. For our Oceania clients we offer travel experiences in Marquesas that will capture the essence of this ferociously beautiful part of the world.

As he had hoped the Marquesas provided Gauguin with the inspiration he sought and he paints some of his finest canvases over the next two years but he was gravely ill and died at the age of fifty-four. Controversy over his manner of death ranges from a morphine overdose to combat the pain of syphilis to malaria, a heart condition and liver disease. It was possibly a combination of all of these that resulted in his death; although the syphilis theory has been somewhat debunked owing to a rather bizarre find in a well near to his house in Hiva Ova. An archaeological dig in 2000 found a bottle containing four teeth, that DNA testing found a 95% match to a living grandson of Gauguin’s. Testing found no trace of mercury, the era’s most common form of treatment for syphilis. This doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have it, just that he wasn’t treated for it. Luckily, you can view said teeth at the Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre, located on the original site of his house, if that’s your thing! His house aptly named by him, “Le Maison du Jouir”, “The House of Pleasure”, has been reconstructed behind the museum where copies of his works are on exhibit.

Image: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Gauguin is buried on a hill in the small Catholic cemetery overlooking Atuona village. Guarding his grave, bolted to the top is a bronze replica of his ceramic sculpture, Oviri.  In Tahitian mythology, Oviri was the goddess of mourning. He had made the sculpture in Paris in 1894 for his tomb in Tahiti but it was never sent out, and now can be seen in the Musee D’orsay. He knew nearly ten years before his death that he would never return to Europe.

If you hope to encounter the spirit of Gauguin in Tahiti or the Marquesas, it isn’t through any archaeological finds or exhibits, his art of course reflects that, but only copies are found there. It’s in the splendour of the islands themselves, the vibrancy of colour, the light of a golden Oceania that can only be experienced first- hand. Let us at Oceania Expeditions take you there.

south pacific travel specialist

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