From Paris to Polynesia: Paul Gauguin
Despite his dependence on the Parisian art market and his active involvement in the artistic circles of the capital, Gauguin longed for a simpler environment where he could live free.
by Jennifer McComas
The celebrated French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) left one of the most enduring legacies and fascinating bodies of work of any nineteenth-century artist. One of his final paintings, The Invocation of 1903, is currently on view at the IU Art Museum along with three prints by Gauguin from the museum’s permanent collection. A loan to the IU Art Museum from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Invocation offers the chance for Bloomington residents to consider a work that embodies Gauguin’s lifelong interests in stylistic experimentation, spirituality, and the “exotic.” And as a work that is inextricably linked to French colonialism, The Invocation also offers insight into Gauguin’s increasingly ambivalent attitude towards the colonial system at the end of his life.
Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848, a year marked by revolutions across Europe. In the aftermath of the revolutions, Gauguin’s politically active parents sought refuge in Peru, his grandfather’s homeland, and Gauguin spent his first five years there. His early adulthood was also defined by travel. In 1865, at the age of 17, he joined the French merchant marines, sailing twice to Brazil. These events set the stage for the intense wanderlust and fascination with the exotic that characterized Gauguin’s life and art. Initially upon his return to civilian life in 1871, Gauguin attempted to settle into a bourgeois lifestyle, obtaining a position as a stockbroker in 1872 and marrying a Danish woman, Mette Gad, the following year. In 1873 he also took up painting as a hobby. By 1876, however, his work was accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon and in 1878 he began collecting the work of the impressionists, with whom he exhibited four times.
The stock market crash of 1882 left Gauguin unemployed. At a crossroads, he took a risk on becoming a full-time artist. While this decision had detrimental effects on his family life—their decline in living standards led to a separation from his wife, who returned to Denmark with their children—it also marked the start of his most productive and artistically fertile years. The years 1886 to 1889 were defined by artistic experimentation and conceptual innovation, prompted by his travels to Pont-Aven in Brittany, to Arles in Provence, and further afield to Panama and Martinique.
At this time, working in a style that came to be known as “synthetism,” he began simplifying forms to their essential components and using pure colors in his work, applying pigment to canvas in large, flat planes separated by bold black lines. His imagery drew upon traditional Breton customs and Christian themes, and he portrayed his subjects in an enigmatic and dreamlike manner that was influenced by Symbolism. Symbolism, a French literary and artistic movement of the late nineteenth century, encouraged the rejection of realism, instead favoring dreamlike, intuitive, and spiritual imagery. The emphasis Symbolism placed on individual perception, interiority, and the spiritual world shaped Gauguin’s art for the rest of his life. So too did the rural, unindustrialized landscape and lifestyle he encountered in Brittany, where, partly to attract tourists, the local population had retained traditional dress and certain cultural practices. To Gauguin’s eyes, accustomed to the rapidly modernizing Parisian cityscape, Brittany appeared both “primitive” and culturally “authentic.”
Yet in 1890, having established himself as a leading Symbolist painter, Gauguin considered traveling further afield. Despite his dependence on the Parisian art market and his active involvement in the artistic circles of the capital, Gauguin longed for a simpler environment where he could finally live “free at last, with no money troubles,” allowing him to devote himself completely to his art. Inspired by his earlier travels in South America and the Caribbean and by Vincent van Gogh’s attempt to establish a “Studio of the South” in Arles, Gauguin now dreamed of setting up a “Studio of the Tropics.” Gauguin’s decision to move to Polynesia was likely inspired by popular travel literature, and confirmed by his visits to the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. Held to mark the centennial of the French Revolution, the exposition celebrated France’s artistic, scientific, and imperialist achievements of the past century. A colonial display within the exposition offered visitors the opportunity to visit pavilions devoted to the colonies, which by 1889 included such holdings as Algeria, Tunisia, Madagascar, Tonkin (Vietnam), Cambodia, and Java, as well as Tahiti and other islands in the South Pacific. The elaborately constructed colonial pavilions were akin to theatrical set pieces, offering visitors a pleasant illusion of colonial life that was part imperial propaganda and part romantic myth.
In the case of Tahiti, which became a French colony in 1880 and where Gauguin would move in 1891, a romantic mythology already predated the fair by more than a century. The perception of the island as an earthly paradise, whose people “breathe only rest and sensual pleasures,” had been established by the publication in 1771 of Voyage autour du monde (Voyage around the World) by the navigator Count Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who visited Tahiti while circumnavigating the globe in 1767. Misunderstanding the welcome his crew had received in Tahiti—during which chiefs had offered young girls to the French sailors, likely in order to secure trading privileges with the foreigners or to capture supernatural powers they were perceived to hold—he named the island “New Cythera,” a reference to the island which, in ancient Greek mythology, was the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love.
The reports following Captain James Cook’s voyages only strengthened this European perception of Tahiti. In Gauguin’s own lifetime, the French naval officer and popular author Pierre Loti (1850–1923) also offered a romanticized and sensual picture of a paradisiacal Tahiti in his 1880 book Le Mariage de Loti. By situating Tahiti as a paradise, Bougainville and Loti merely shifted the concept of a classical Arcadia or long-lost golden age—long a trope of European art—to the South Pacific, thus aligning it with an intensifying European interest in all things “exotic.” This romantic image of Tahiti as a land of abundance, easy living, and friendly inhabitants was skillfully co-opted by the organizers of the 1889 colonial exposition, who sought to encourage French immigration to the Pacific colonies. While the fair’s attractive presentation of the colonies undoubtedly sparked Gauguin’s interest in Tahiti as a potential location for his “Studio of the Tropics,” so too did the island’s status as a French colony, which would facilitate his move abroad and help him maintain contact with the Parisian art world.
In March 1891, Gauguin requested funding from the Ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts to “study and ultimately paint the customs and landscapes of Tahiti,” a proposition that undoubtedly interested the colonial administrators, who approved his request. The following month, he sailed for Tahiti, where he stayed for two years before returning temporarily to France. The paintings Gauguin produced in Tahiti are among his most iconic; they blend the synthetist style he had developed in Brittany with Christian iconography, motifs he saw in Polynesian, Maori, and Javanese art, and a sense of the spirit world that pervaded traditional Tahitian culture. Upon Gauguin’s return to Paris in 1893 he busied himself with the production of Noa Noa, a book of woodcuts that accompanied an exhibition of his work at the Durand-Ruel Gallery, and were meant to explain his Tahitian imagery to a European audience. Although the exhibition was fairly successful, resulting in the sale of forty paintings, and although Gauguin had found Oceania less arcadian and more expensive than he had imagined, he returned to Tahiti in the summer of 1895. He would never return to Europe. Gauguin’s final years were marked by financial distress, legal problems, severe depression, and ill health, including a diagnosis of syphilis. He also found himself increasingly disenchanted with the French colonial society in Papeete, Tahiti’s capital, and the transformation of traditional Tahitian culture by westernization. Throughout the 1890s, he struggled to reconcile Tahiti’s colonial reality with the paradise constructed by Bougainville, Loti, and the displays of the 1889 colonial exposition, and ultimately determined to travel to a less developed and more remote part of Polynesia. He was prevented from doing so only by his precarious financial situation.
In 1901, the opportunity to resettle in the Marquesas Islands, some 750 miles northeast of Tahiti, presented itself when the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard offered Gauguin a monthly stipend in exchange for regular shipments of paintings. While this financial stability provided Gauguin with the means to make the move to the Marquesas, the arrangement also placed certain artistic restrictions on him. Gauguin needed to produce pictures that Vollard would be able to sell to Parisian collectors. Therefore, as the art historian Elizabeth C. Childs has noted, Gauguin’s most marketable Marquesan paintings tended to be pastoral landscapes that avoided any indication of colonial strife or European intervention.
Yet, despite these peaceful images, and Gauguin’s own perception that the Marquesas would be more “unspoiled” than Tahiti, they had in fact been greatly affected by their annexation by the French in 1842. In particular, its people had been decimated by western diseases, including venereal disease and influenza. When Gauguin arrived on the island of Hiva Oa in mid-September 1901, the Marquesan population stood at about 3,500, whereas it has been estimated at approximately 80,000 in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, it was during his two years in the village of Atuona on Hiva Oa that he began to question both the colonial system and the Catholic Church’s influence in Polynesia. While he did not necessarily find the more “authentic” Oceanic culture he had sought, Gauguin nevertheless enjoyed a less marginalized social position than he had in Tahiti, and he was able to form closer friendships with Pacific Islanders during his stay in the Marquesas.
Perhaps due to the personal relationships he formed there, he even became embroiled in conflicts with the French colonial administrators due to his advocacy on behalf of the indigenous people. This is not to say that Gauguin’s growing awareness of indigenous rights and colonial exploitation had a significant impact on his art. His own aesthetic concerns, combined with his need to consider the Parisian market, dictated the subject and style of his paintings. Audiences in France expected to see in Gauguin’s paintings the idyllic vision of Polynesia that had been established by Bougainville, Loti, and the 1889 colonial exposition.
The Invocation appears to offer viewers this idyllic vision, yet a closer look reveals a hint of Gauguin’s newly ambivalent attitudes towards French colonialism. The focus of The Invocation’s composition is a nude female figure who stands before a verdant, mountainous landscape—the environs of Atuona—with her arms stretched skywards. She is surrounded by four female figures, two seated and two standing. Three are semi-nude, while the fourth—the only one who looks at the praying figure—is dressed in a style of loose-fitting garment introduced by European missionaries. A cross visible in the upper left of the composition signals the location of a Catholic church and cemetery.
The Invocation is painted in Gauguin’s unique style, featuring a matte surface with a regular pattern of vertical brushstrokes, which almost impressionistically evoke the lushness of the landscape. By contrast, the bodies of the figures in the composition are flatly painted and heavily outlined, in the stylized manner he had developed in Brittany. Motifs and iconography from Gauguin’s Tahitian oeuvre frequently recur in his later, Marquesan works, and The Invocation is a prime example. Most strikingly, the pose of the central praying figure recalls that of the most prominent figure—the centrally placed woman who reaches up to pick a piece of fruit—in the mural-sized painting Gauguin himself considered to be his masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, an 1897-98 meditation on the cycle of life
While the precise meaning of Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings is often elusive, many address the topic of spirituality. Spirituality was, in fact, one of the most persistent themes in Gauguin’s oeuvre. Traditional Christian iconography, as well as the depiction of a more esoteric, visionary Christianity, appears in Gauguin’s work around the time of his introduction in the 1880s to the circle of Symbolist artists and writers around the poet Stephané Mallarmé, who himself became one of Gauguin’s staunchest supporters.
In Tahiti, Gauguin’s paintings presented a hybrid vision of Christian and Polynesian spirituality (or at least his own understanding of it). The Invocation, on the other hand, alludes to the clash between Christianity and traditional Polynesian religion, which was characterized by a complex pantheon of spirits, gods, and ancestors. The Christianization that accompanied colonialism became particularly troubling to Gauguin in the Marquesas, where European religion had been introduced more recently. While English missionaries had arrived in Tahiti in 1797, and Christianity had become widely established on the island by 1820, it was not until the 1850s that Catholic missionaries began to make a significant impact in the Marquesas. For the intended European viewer of The Invocation, knowing little about Polynesian culture and religion, the specific nature of the prayer is enigmatic—who or what is being invoked and why? Yet, the praying nude figure offers a clear contrast and perhaps an antidote to the restrictions Christian missionaries imposed on the Marquesans—as represented by the dress and headscarf worn by the woman in the background as well as the cross dominating the distant landscape.
Shortly after completing The Invocation, Gauguin died on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa on May 9, 1903, at the age of fifty-four, and his body was laid to rest in the cemetery of the Catholic church seen in the painting’s background. Produced at the end of Gauguin’s life, The Invocation occupies a unique place in the artist’s oeuvre, representing the culmination of his lifelong artistic experimentation, innovation, and total dedication to his art. In analyzing Gauguin’s Polynesian oeuvre, scholars in recent decades have often turned a critical eye towards Gauguin’s complicity with the exploitative colonial system. Yet while The Invocation indeed offered early-twentieth-century French audiences the colonial fantasy of a tropical paradise that they expected and desired, it also offers insight into Gauguin’s increasingly ambivalent and complicated attitude towards colonialism.
Jennifer McComas, class of 1949, is the Curator of European and American Art at the
IU Art Museum