Gauguin and the Modern Fantasy

Posted on February 1, 2011

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From a guest blogger:

Last month the Tate Modern closed its doors on an exhibition of the work of French artist Paul Gauguin entitled Gauguin: Maker of Myth. The show consisted mainly of paintings from the several stages of his artistic life but also included sculptures, works of pottery, private letters and even the decorated door-frame of his Tahitian house inscribed with the words ‘maison de joie’ (house of joy). Given this last detail it seems ironic that one of the major themes of Gauguin’s work as an artist should be melancholy. Indeed a feeling of despair and hopelessness runs throughout his work.

Among the most famous of Gauguin’s pictures is one called Nevermore O Tahiti in which he seemingly laments the disappearance of native Tahitian culture and religious beliefs (embodied by the nude in the foreground) as a result of the advance of European civilisation (represented by westerners in the background). A reference to Edgar Allan Poe caps this off with the raven perched above the bed adding further to the sense of gloom and hopelessness emanating from the picture.

Indeed, gloom is perhaps one of the most authentic, and, given Gauguin’s life, one of the least surprising, aspects of his work. For Gauguin the disappearance of the Polynesian culture was the disappearance of a pastoral, quasi-utopian dream. After leaving behind his family in France he had set sail for Tahiti in search of an unspoilt paradise. An account by Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout of the traditional cultural practices and beliefs of the native Polynesians entitled Voyage aux iles du grand ocean captivated Gauguin’s imagination and seemed to outline an alternative to what he saw as the oppressive and hypocritical Christian traditions of Europe of which he was an outspoken opponent. However, on arrival in Tahiti Gauguin found that most of the natives had successfully been converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries. The natives, whom he hoped would resemble the ‘noble savages’ of his fertile imagination, now appeared more like the pious Breton women of his French homeland, whose piety Gauguin is on the verge of mocking in such paintings as Vision of the Sermon and The Yellow Christ where lurid colours invite us to imagine a touch of fantasy or wishful thinking on the part of the peasants depicted.

Not one to lose hope entirely, Gauguin set about constructing his own version of Tahitian spirituality through his art with numerous references to these traditions either in the background in works such as Tehamana Has Many Parents or, specifically, as the main subject of a work in Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch and The Idol. Drawing from Voyage aux iles du grand ocean as well as surviving practices Gauguin was able to construct a partly factual, but mainly fictional version, of native Tahitian religion.

This is the paradox of Gauguin. On the one hand he sought to reject the civilisation of a largely Christian Europe, considered a kind of fantasy in Vision After the Sermon, only to replace it with his own half-constructed myths about Tahitian deities.

The artist, of course, is not alone in such a transition from belief to fantasy. Since the French Revolution Europe has gradually let go its religion, its culture and its optimism. Even truth itself is doubted in an increasingly fragmented, ‘post-modern’, Europe. The family institution, like Gauguin’s own wife and children, is closer and closer to being left behind through successive attempts to re-define how parents and children should relate to each other and even what parents are. In an era of surrogate mothers and ‘donor’ fathers Gauguin’s Tehamana Has Many Parents begins to take on another meaning altogether. For all the apparent high ideas about progress, whether technological or moral of the modern, secular Europe, it is difficult to escape the feeling that this is, like Gauguin’s manufactured myths, little more than an exercise in a rather tragic form of wishful thinking.

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