'A Life of Ecstasy, Peace and Art'

By Walsh, John | The Independent (London, England), September 25, 2010 | Go to article overview
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'A Life of Ecstasy, Peace and Art'

Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)

Tahiti A new exhibition of Paul Gauguin's work paints a vibrant picture of Tahiti. But does this Polynesian idyll still have the same allure?

It was on his 43rd birthday, 7 June 1891, that Paul Gauguin first glimpsed Tahiti. It must have been a wonderful sight: the extinct volcano, Mount Orohena, which dominates the upper island, the coral reef that enclosed a sparkling lagoon, scarlet flame trees on the hillside, a dream of palm trees and hibiscus flowers on the semi- circular beach, a few bamboo huts, fishermen in canoes, women by the water's edge dressed in shapeless flowery dresses. As he was rowed ashore from the good ship Vire, it must have seemed like Paradise. Only one thing spoiled the atmosphere as he walked up the beach: the islanders were laughing at him.

"He attracted the stares of the natives, provoked their surprise and also their jeers," wrote a French naval officer. "What focused attention was his long salt-and-pepper hair, falling in a sheet on his shoulders from beneath a vast, brown felt hat with a large brim like a cowboy's."

Convinced that he must be a debased French version of the androgynous mahu that is semi- sacred in Polynesian society, the islanders called him taata-vahine, or "man-woman". Oblivious to the fact that one of the greatest painters in history had just stepped ashore, they jeered at him as a big girl's blouse.

The first Western visitors to Tahiti had walked up the same beach barely a century earlier - and the wonders they encountered became the stuff of myth. First came HMS Dolphin, under Captain Samuel Wallis, in 1767. He later reported how native boats surrounded his ship; some canoes carried women "who played a great many droll tricks".

The following spring, L'Etoile and La Boudeuse, two ships under the captaincy of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, made landfall and stayed for nine days. Bougainville painted a vivid picture of the sex-crazed island "goddesses", saying the Tahitians "pressed us to choose a woman and come on shore with her; and their gestures, which were not ambiguous, denoted in what manner we should form an acquaintance with her."

Few loose women are in evidence in 2010 at Papeete airport, after a gruelling 20-hour flight: London to Paris; a 12-hour marathon from Paris to Los Angeles; a two-hour stopover; then a final eight hours to the jewel of French Polynesia. When you arrive, the ukulele band at Arrivals, and the girl who inserts a tiare flower behind your ear, almost compensate for the wait at passport control.

I've come to Tahiti to follow Gauguin's search for tropical simplicity and authentic primitive art. He never forgot his childhood in Lima with his mother's family, and called himself "the savage from Peru", enjoying the cachet it gave him to be outside, or beyond, the confines of bourgeois society. In his twenties, he tried civilian life in a stockbroking firm, but when the French stock market collapsed in 1882, he had to choose between banking and art. He chose art.

His Danish wife took the children to live in Copenhagen, and Gauguin, from 1886, became more and more embroiled in landscapes of rural simplicity, shading into primitivism. From Brittany, he moved on to Panama "to live there like a savage", then to the French Caribbean island of Martinique. A vision met his eyes: he saw how vivid colours, the luxuriant jungle and the natural beauty of the people could transform his painting, and put him beyond the soft- focus prettiness of the Impressionists.

Showing his work alongside the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, he checked out the art in the foreign pavilions and began considering leaving France in search of a "truer" life abroad. The French colonies of Polynesia appealed to him, though in a romanticised way. "I long for the day (soon perhaps) when I'll flee into the woods on an island in Oceania, there to live a life of ecstasy, peace and art," he wrote to his wife.

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