Gauguin portrays an image of Tahiti tinged with Egypt, Buddhism

March 29, 2004 12:00 AM


This week I am writing about an exhibition of Paul Gauguin's art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The great painter's work has been the subject of thousands of studies and evaluations for the past century. Nevertheless, watching his paintings in the current American settings, here and now, made me read his paintings in unfamiliar ways. Thus, my reading is not only the result of myself seeing the paintings, but also the result of seeing the paintings in America in the year 2004.

Looking at the paintings from his first trip to Tahiti, I think that Gauguin was actually creating his own island; he saw Tahiti as a civilizational child. I mean, he totally subscribed to the idea of human evolution dominant in 19th century Europe, where the European man is the most developed and therefore the least innocent, just like an adult is more developed but less innocent, and therefore less beautiful, than a child.

The striking thing, however, is that he never saw Tahiti for anything else. In the exhibition, there were a couple of photographs from Tahiti, the country so much romanticized by the painter. One of the photos showed members of a local royal family being shipped aboard some European ship called the Astree.

The face of each and every human being says only one thing: extreme inhuman misery. Misery enveloped the black-and-white photos; it was as if fumes of pain flowed from the frames and filled the museum's rooms. It is strange to me how the great painter could not see this misery at all, seeing in Tahiti only the perfect ideal of the happy, tranquil and innocent humanity in her childhood.

The paintings from Gauguin's first visit show this very well: His famous painting Hale Mary where he paints the Madonna and the Child with Tahitian features and cloths, and his painting The Delights of the Land where he paints his 13-year-old Tahitian lover as Eve, are very indicative.

While the two paintings express great love for the painter's new home, they also tell us that he did not see the land for what it was; he reformed it into the mould of his own culture, into what is sacred and loved to him. The peace and tranquility that flow from Hale Mary directly contradict the overwhelming misery in the photos. The body of the Tahitian Eve in The Delights of the Land is taken from a photo of a Buddhist temple in Java which Gauguin had taken with him to Tahiti. In another painting, he drew a Tahitian woman in positions similar to those of Pharaonic female dancers; again, after a photo of an ancient Egyptian tomb he had brought with him to Tahiti. In a sense, since Tahiti was not France, it could become anything else.

Also, the masculine-feminine ingredient of 19th century Eurocentric thought is strongly present in the fact that Gauguin mostly drew women; he almost never drew a man. When he drew his 13-year-old lover as Eve, he called the painting: The Delights of the Land. This, coupled with the very fact that he befriended a 13-year-old girl and made her a theme of many of his paintings, an act that could not have passed acceptably in late 19th century France, is indicative as well.

To complete the picture, Gauguin needed a savage local religion, but in Tahiti he did not find the primitive savage religion he sought, he only found very poor men and women being manipulated by French Catholic missionaries. Few of them even knew the tenets of their old religion.

Gauguin had to reconstruct the image he did not find. He did that depending on a book written by a Frenchmen in the thirties of the 19th century about Tahitian religion. Whenever he found gaps he filled them with photographs of Buddhist temples and Egyptian tombs. To him, humanity in its childhood is but one, the differences among Buddhism, ancient Egyptian religion and that of Tahiti don't really matter; as long as they are not European, they are all but primitive, savage things that are therefore nice, innocent, beautiful ... and more or less the same.

But Gauguin is a great painter despite the fact that he was a 19th century Frenchman. After all, he was not a 19th century French general or politician.

In his second trip to Tahiti one sees that he stopped painting his image of the place, the place was internalized in Gauguin's perception of the world. The figures from Tahiti became, not the objects he was drawing, but rather the means by which he was drawing something else, something abstract, some feeling, some understanding of human nature he held. He stopped seeing Tahiti as France in her childhood; rather, he saw the Tahitian bodies as means by which he could express Gauguin in his later days. Here, one finds his masterpiece Where We Come From, Who We Are and Where Are We Going? The mural that is the hugest and the most comprehensive of his works deserves detailed description by an expert - which I cannot provide. Central to the mural, there is a figure of a man, painted in bright yellow. The figure directly reminded me of Christ, yet, instead of the hands stretched to the sides and nailed to a cross, they are stretching upward in an attempt to get fruit; the fruit nails the human body, yet stretches it as if it were holding it off the ground and calling upon it to fly. To the left of the vertical Christ of the mural, we see an idol, religion, and a woman walking away from it. To right of the central figure, there are two women walking into the dark and talking, most probably asking questions, their figures balance the religious image to the left. Finally, near the feet of the central figure, stretching from right to left, there are women and children in various every-day life positions. At the bottom left of the painting there is an old woman, resigned to fate; "all that remains" in Gauguin's own words.

This fascinating painting is the daughter of Gauguin and his own culture. It is full of Tahitian figures, yet Gauguin was definitely not painting them, nor was he painting Tahiti. One is inclined to say that Gauguin has never seen Tahiti; in his first visit he was actually painting the Tahiti is his mind, while in the second visit, he was not painting any Tahiti, neither the one in his mind, nor the one in reality - he was painting himself and his feelings. But this, after all, is the artist's job.

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