Here is another image from the Gauguin exhibit that imposes the painter’s invented cosmology on a very real landscape. Its title is Mahana no atua or Day of the God (Art Institute of Chicago).
The stylized figure in the middle background of the painting is meant to be Ta’aroa, the supreme creator god in the mythology of Polynesia, crowned by an elaborate headdress made from the feathers of tropical birds. So far so accurate, though the headdress should be a blazing scarlet – the color associated with divinity in Tahiti. But in Gauguin’s interpretation, Ta’aroa looks like a Hindu goddess with his upraised, undulating arms, and in fact the painter is said to have been inspired by the carved reliefs on the Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur in Java.
But the rest of the picture is pure Tahiti - from the waves breaking on the reef to the mountains coming down almost to the edge of the lagoon. Notice the pandanus tree on the left with its long flat spindly leaves. Plaited together, these leaves were traditionally used to roof Tahitian houses, though thatched roofs have now largely been replaced by ugly corrugated iron, which is less of a fire hazard. On the left of the painting, two women carry a long tray laden with food as an offering for the god. This kind of communal feast bowl, known as an umete in Tahitian, was used throughout the South Pacific. Princess Titaua, the oldest Salmon daughter, inherited a spectacular 12-foot long umete from the Cook Islands, which she and her second husband sold to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1895. The museum has just undergone a £46 million refurbishment and will reopen this summer – and I will be there to see the umete take its place as the centerpiece of the museum’s magnificent multi-level Grand Gallery.
Wherever I go, I catch glimpses of Tahiti.