Yesterday I finally made it downtown to the National Gallery of Art to see the exhibition Gauguin: Maker of Myth that originated at the Tate Modern in London (it closes next Sunday, June 5). Seeing so many of his pictures together and up close made me realize anew how utterly he created his own version of Tahiti, compete with a made-up mythology drawn from the Javanese, a distorted idea of the great Easter Island statues and his own imagination.
Not that I blame him for it – he had a perfect right to paint an invented world that did not correspond with what lay in front of him. My only concern is that the entire conception of Tahiti for most people in the modern West hangs on this man’s images. And while these images are extraordinary, unique, and powerful, they are not to be fully trusted as true depictions of the Tahiti of the 1890s. I speak of course as someone who is writing about that very period in Tahiti’s rich history and is taking great pains to make sure the picture that I am painting is true to life.
When Gauguin arrived in Papeete, the capital, in 1891, he was disgusted by what he found. ”It was Europe – the Europe which I had thought to shake off… the imitation, grotesque even to the point of caricature, of our customs, fashions, vices, and absurdities of civilization. Was I to have made this far journey only to find the very thing which I had fled?” He was momentarily distracted by the funeral of King Pomare V whose liver had finally given way after years of gargantuan alcohol consumption. At the palace, Gauguin was introduced to the 31-year-old ex-Queen Marau, and he waxed lyrical in his book Noa Noa about her “Maori charm” and the “truly imposing grandeur” of herself and her brother Tati Salmon, whom he heard give the oration at the King’s funeral.
Despite these intriguing encounters, Gauguin soon found he was persona non grata with the French authorities and fled down the west coast of the island – beyond the reach of the civilization he decried – to the village of Mataiea. There he rented a bamboo hut, intending to live like the local Tahitians on breadfruit and fish from the lagoon. But he found it harder to shed the trappings of “civilization” than he had thought. In reality, he lived on canned goods that he bought on credit at the local Chinese-run village store and sent endless letters home to his wife and friends and his art dealer complaining of his penury. “I am a great artist, and I know it. It is because I am what I am that I have to endure so much suffering... What annoys me is not so much the misery but the fact that constant obstacles are put in the way of my art so that I cannot do what I feel and that I should be able to do it without the misery that is always tying my hands.”
His only consolation was to paint the great mythic visions that he saw in his head – images of Tahitian Eves and young girls terrified by lurking tupapau (evil spirits) and an entire pantheon of gods and goddess half-invented and half-borrowed from the religions of the East.
Yet as much as this Tahiti is of Gauguin’s own invention, as I walked around the galleries yesterday, I caught glimpses of the Tahiti I have come to know – both through books and in person. I have seen the lovely faces of the girls in Two Tahitian Women in the streets of Papeete, and I have seen the same view inland towards the mountains with a foreground full of coconut palms and breadfruit trees and a man carrying bunches of wild bananas on a long pole as in Tahitian Mountain Landscape. I even spotted the chickens and the scrawny dogs that are everywhere in Tahiti even more than a century later.So maybe it doesn’t matter that Gauguin didn’t paint a literal picture of the place and the period. While the facts do matter, sometimes an oblique view can illuminate it even more.