Woman with a Fan: Paul Gauguin's Heavenly Vairaumati-A Parable of Immortality

By Hargrove, June | The Art Bulletin, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Woman with a Fan: Paul Gauguin's Heavenly Vairaumati-A Parable of Immortality


Hargrove, June, The Art Bulletin


I work a bit like the Bible, where the doctrine is pronounced in symbolic form, presenting a double aspect ... ; it's the sense literal, superficial, figurative, mysterious of a parable.-Paul Gauguin to André Fontainas, August 1899(1)

Paul Gauguin arrived in September 1901 in the Marquesas Islands, where he died at the age of fifty-four in May 1903. Despite deteriorating health during this period, he was remarkably productive, achieving some of his most technically assured and subtly enigmatic paintings. Although these works are mentioned in the modern literature on Gauguin, their presence is commonly invoked to expose the gendered and colonialist attitudes prevalent in his day.2 If they are described, the emphasis is on their Arcadian beauty rather than their potential content.

Gauguin's symbolism in his late paintings has been given scant attention in part because he himself confused the situation by claiming to repudiate literary explanations, consequently discouraging efforts to probe this work for complex nuances. Just as Gauguin fled Europe but could not escape Paris, he sought to abandon narratives but had recourse to words. The artist strove to generate a mode of pictorial abstraction, analogous to music, with nonrepresentational elements transmitting the painting's emotional harmonies. The viewer's experience kindles subjective responses that intermingle with layers of meaning couched by Gauguin in the ambiguous terms of a parable. Gaining insight into Gauguin's artistic quest in the final months of his life not only opens new perspectives on the art of his Marquesan period, it also sheds light on his impact on artists of the next generation.3

This essay stems from a larger project concerning the art that Gauguin produced in the Marquesas Islands, but it focuses on one painting in order to explore the tension between meaning and abstraction in his late use of symbolism, a dialectic fundamental to fin de siècle modernism. Woman with a Fan (Fig. 1) is typically presumed to be the depiction of a young Marquesan woman devoid of symbolic import.4 Nonetheless, the image begs further investigation. The figure sits at an awkward angle in a chair distinguished by its oddity. The fan, which she holds more like a scepter than a fashion accessory, bears a striking targetlike ornament. The glowing color of the woman's skin set against a golden ground imbues her introspection with luminous majesty. While no known text by Gauguin refers specifically to this painting, the artist wrote extensively on his art and his faith at the time he realized it.

The following argument uses a combination of visual and verbal clues to identify the subject of the painting as the deified Vairaumati, the mortal wife of the god Oro, who rose to the heavens as his consort. Thus identified, Gauguin's depiction of a central figure of a Maori myth can be seen to frame his intertwined aesthetic and spiritual beliefs. The archetype for his successive versions of Vairaumati, starting in 1892, remains the painting Hope by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, which illuminates the role of transposition in their evolution. The premise of transposition is the linchpin of Gauguin's creative process, which demands unfettered freedom to achieve true originality. The principle of artistic liberty, which he believed to be his greatest contribution to the future, is elicited in this canvas by an emblem inseparable from the 1789 French Revolution: the blue, white, and red rosette on the fan. These diverse constituents converge in Woman with a Fan, which can be read as his ultimate meditation on the creative process.

Woman with a Fan asserts the late symbolism of Gauguin as a porous matrix that allows constellations of associations to coalesce, dynamic alliances instead of a fixed set of signs. Its expressive character is driven by the slippage between motifs. The musical paradigm that he embraced led him to seek polysemous correspondences in his imagery. …

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