Paradise Lost: Richard Cork Follows Gauguin's Doomed but Fruitful Pursuit of Happiness

Article excerpt

Convinced that western civilisation had become rotten, Gauguin set sail for Tahiti in April 1891. He left behind his wife and five children, just as recklessly as he had abandoned his business career in the Paris stock exchange a decade earlier. Tahiti was to him "an enchanted land", and he dreamed of transforming his art in this remote, supposedly idyllic locale. Stirred by memories of his blissful Peruvian childhood, he carved two polychrome reliefs just before his long voyage. Naked figures undulate on their burnished surfaces, intertwined with an ecstatic inscription urging everyone to "be loving, you will be happy".

He was, without doubt, desperate to leave France. A photograph of Gauguin, in the opening room of The revelatory exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, reveals a weary man who looks older than his 43 years. At the same time, he produced a melancholy self-portrait looming in front of his own painting The Yellow Christ. Gauguin clearly identified with the plight of The crucified martyr, and hoped that Tahiti would somehow enable him to achieve a new beginning.

Any fantasies he harboured about discovering paradise on the island were soon destroyed. Only three days after Gauguin arrived, the last king of Tahiti died. His death coincided with the disastrous decline of the French colony, long since stripped of its traditional culture. Plagued already by the syphilis that killed him only 12 years later, Gauguin soon became restless and began applying for repatriation to France. But the art he made after settling for a while on the island's seductive south coast was outstanding.

Ia Orana Maria, a large and boldly coloured painting where Mary and Jesus take on a frankly Tahitian identity, is enlivened by an angel with radiant yellow wings. Although Gauguin was not a Christian, he aimed at inventing a new kind of spiritual art. Drawing on Maori carvings, Easter island sculptures, the reliefs on the Temple of Borobudur and much else besides, he fused western art with the heretical form-language of alternative cultures across the world.

He also moved, with exemplary freedom, between different media. Gauguin was a formidable sculptor, and in the Paris show his own sparingly carved wooden bowl is displayed in front of a painting called The Meal. Here the same vessel occupies a central, inviting position on a table heavy with flaring red bananas and other, equally swollen, Tahitian fruits. Three young islanders are seated beyond: a girl in the middle and two boys eyeing her on either side. The image is filled with an enigmatic sense of expectancy, and the figures seem unable to reach out and consume the irresistible food in front of them.

The whole notion of forbidden fruit excited Gauguin's imagination during this early Tahitian period, in one mood, he painted a long-haired young woman who leans enticingly to one side, grasping a plump mango in the palm of her upraised right hand. She smiles, as if pleased with her role as a temptress. But Gauguin could easily shift from brazen sensuality to a darker mood. He called another, even more beguiling woman Delicious Earth, and showed her standing naked in a landscape heavy with rich foliage and the flamboyant wings of exotic birds. Solemnly fingering the stalk of a flower, she looks dangerous as well as enticing.

With Gauguin caught between the urge to savour a liberated life of pleasure and the guilty suspicion that he would eventually be punished for self indulgence, his Tahitian work became more and more haunted. Later, in 1892, he painted a naked adolescent sprawled on a bed at night. Her dark flesh, flecked with orange on shoulder, buttock and heel, looks even more beguiling when contrasted with the pale yellow sheet beneath. But she cannot deep. Pressing both her hands hard into the pillow, she glances back as if aware of a menacing presence behind. Gauguin called the painting The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, and he included an ominous figure who gazes, in implacable profile, towards the girl. …