By 1887 Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) had created over 50 ceramic sculptures as well as several carved decorative panels, so during his time in Paris between 1893 and 1895 it may be expected that he would create a woodcut based on his most recent and important discovery of the Paris interval: his hideous Oviri.
Gauguin made a large ceramic of Oviri (fig. 13) – the Tahitian name translates as “wild” or “savage” and more recently as “turned into oneself” – in the winter of 1894-1895. The artist submitted it to the annual exhibition of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts for April 1895. When Gauguin discovered this mysterious figure who holds a blunted she-wolf, crushing the life out of her cub – occasionally understood as a symbol of female sexual potency – he did not let her go.55 In this print impression– and he made 19 prints from the same wood block, none of which are exactly alike – Gauguin’s Oviri is encountered in the primeval forest as inky blackness. The ceramic, envisioned by the artist as a savage, modern funerary monument (fig.14), was rejected by the judges for inclusion into the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Gauguin’s latest Tahiti-inspired art was deemed too ugly even by an organization of artists that, since its renewed inception in 1890, is seen as Europe’s first Secessionist movement. Although Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a founding member of the group and since 1891 working on his commission from the Société de Gens Lettres for a Paris Balzac statue (that “obese monstrosity”) it was ceramist Ernst Chaplet who insisted on Gauguin’s admittance.56
Where exactly the ceramic Oviri was displayed in the salon is unclear, but its subsequent route into the Musée d’Orsay in 1987 is highly circuitous.57 Gauguin often exploited favorite images by repeating them in various media – and the ceramic transposed to the print depicts his goddess showering a black light that blots out most of the natural reality around her. In one more Gauguin print from this time period that fits in the palm of the hand, the artist offers a splendor of darkness, the mystery of a palm frond forest, and a stark confrontation with Oviri who is, as Gauguin described to Stéphane Mallarmé on the poet’s version of the print, “a strange figure, cruel enigma.”58
“turned into oneself” – Anne Pingeot, “Oviri,” in Gauguin Tahiti, George T.M. Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory, MFA Publications, 2004, p. 140; “symbol of female sexual potency” – Mathews, p. 203; Gauguin’s ceramic and carved panel output -Barbara Stern Shapiro, “Shapes and Harmonies of Another World,” in Gauguin Tahiti, George T.M. Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory, MFA Publications, 2004, pp. 117 and 126.
19 prints from one wood block – Shapiro, p. 126; savage, modern funerary monument – Mathews, p.208; first secessionist movement – Hans-Ulrich Simon, Sezessionismus. Kunstgewerbe in literarischer und bildender Kunst,: J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Stuttgart ,1976, p. 47; Gauguin and the 1895 Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts salon – Mathews, p. 208; “obese monstrosity” – Grunfeld, Frederic V., Rodin:A Biography, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1987, p. 374.
Anne Pingeot, “Oviri,” in Gauguin Tahiti, George T.M. Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory, MFA Publications, 2004, pp. 136-138.
Fig. 9. Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Idol-The Goddess Hina, 1894/95 – woodcut in black ink, over ochre and red, with touches of white and green inks, on tan wove paper, 5.78 x 4.72 inches (147 x 120 mm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward McCormick Blair collection.
By John P. Walsh
For some pieces of graphic art Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) uses the moniker “P.Go.” to sign them.52 In Tahitian Idol-The Goddess Hina (fig.9), it is present in the lower left corner slightly on its side. While Day of the Gods, painted in Paris in 1894 at the same time as the woodcut, received a simple signature of “Gauguin” (the painting was not exhibited in the artist’s lifetime), Gauguin sometimes used these new graphic art works as “image translations” to explain his Tahitian art to the Parisian public. This may explain the pretension of the anagram here.53
Gauguin’s obsession with the primitive, the savage, is evident in this work. The small woodcut is an image of a Tahitian goddess where the composition’s diverse elements congeal to a single mask to be held in the palm of one’s hand. Goddess Hina, immobile and august, is fitted into the composition as a first among equals. A tree fills the left border like a totem with a V-formed sprout. At the woodcut’s top border – and peering out of a branch at the tree trunk’s crux – is a profile of an evil spirit represented by a head. The grassy hair of the goddess fills about half the background and falls to nestle by her left arm. Gauguin uses several stock elements in different attitudes or positions. For example, he used the evil head in the 1892 painting Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil) (fig.10) and this woodcut’s symbolism likewise remains complex. In the woodcut, to Goddess Hina’s right and immediately below the malevolent spirit who materializes in strange and frightening humanoid forms, appear abstracted forms of a coiled snake and other ceremonial visages. Goddess Hina is primitive and statuesque whereas the evil head possesses a sinister aspect with circles that serve as open eyes.
fig.10. Gauguin, Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil), 1892, oil on canvas, 91.7 × 68.5 cm (36 1/8 × 25 15/16 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
When Gauguin wrote from Tahiti in March 1899 to Belgian Symbolist poet and critic André Fontainas with reflections on the South Seas, he expressed strong feelings of awe, personal vigil, and dream-like vision. Such qualities must have been experienced on his first Tahiti trip for they permeate a work like Tahitian Idol – The Goddess Hina:
“Here near my hut, in utter silence, I dream of violent harmonies in the natural fragrances that exhilarate me. A pleasure heightened by an indefinable sacred awe which I divine towards the immemorial. In bygone days, an odor of joy that I breathe in the present. Animal figures in statuesque rigidity: something inexpressibly old, august, religious in the rhythm of their gesture, in their rare immobility. In dreaming eyes, the cloudy surface of an unfathomable enigma. And here is nightfall – everything is at rest. My eyes close in order to see without understanding the dream in the infinite space that recedes before me, and I have a sense of the doleful march of my hopes.”54
Paul Gauguin’s hut in Tahiti – Jules Agostini (1859-1930), December 31, 1904. Bibliothèque nationale de France.
In a work of approximately 5 x 4 inches―and its small size in no way diminishes its artistic force―Gauguin achieves in Tahitian Idol-The Goddess Hina a craftsman’s unity of good and evil in nature. Before his first visit to Tahiti Gauguin already had familiarity with this theme of nature’s duality for he uses it in his 1889 painting Self-Portrait (fig. 11) where halo and snake vie within and for creation.
fig.11. Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1889, oil on wood, 79.2 x 51.3 cm (31 3/16 x 20 3/16 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Brettell., p. 330.
Ibid., p. 330.
Delevoy, Robert L., Symbolists and Symbolism, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York, 1982, page 54.
MORE WORK BY PAUL GAUGUIN in THE FRANCE INTERLUDE:
PAUL GAUGUIN, Tahitian Woman, 1894?, irregularly shaped; charcoal and pastel, selectively stumped, and worked with brush and water on wove “pasted” paper, glued to secondary support of yellow wove paper mounted on gray millboard. The Brooklyn Museum. A pastel where Gauguin subverted the medium.
PAUL GAUGUIN The Young Christian Girl, 15 3/8 x 18 inches, oil on canvas, Clark Institute Art Institute, Massachusetts. Gauguin painted this work in Northern France fusing imagery from his recent experiences in Tahiti. She is shown in a dress similar to those brought by Christian missionaries to the South Sea Islands.
As Belgian critic Emile Verhaeren saw him, Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) produces “child art.”47 The artist’s anagram “P.Go.” looms large in the lower left hand corner making it plain that the 46-year-old Gauguin made this print. Gauguin’s use of color and form are significant as they build up the image of five women in a landscape―two foreground figures more fully defined than the three figures merging into the background. It is ambiguous whether it is a channel of water or grass that separates the two foreground women who appear to perform a rite of worship and a trio in conversation or, as Richard Brettell interprets, dancing.48 As the Seine flows through Paris where Gauguin created this print, there exists in Tahitian Landscape (fig. 5) a commentariat on the Right Bank and artisans spilling blood in their offerings on the Left Bank. Modeling of the three women has affinities with Ta Matete of 1892 (fig.6) as Gauguin uses the same flat, static figures that have been traced to Egyptian painting with the ethnological implication that the Polynesians’ origins are in mankind’s oldest civilizations.49
Fig. 5. Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Landscape, 1894 – watercolor monotype, with brush and watercolor, on cream wove paper, 8.66 x 9.72 inches (220 x 247 mm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward McCormick Blair collection.
Fig. 6. Gauguin, Ta Matete (The Market), 1892, 28.7 x 36.2″ (73 x 92 cm), Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.
Continual rhythm or “musicality” of bodily contours with intervening empty space gives Tahitian Landscape a Synthetist sensibility to the figures while its overall Symbolist ambiguity is a result of pale color and de-emphasized form. The figure of the woman on her knees to the right is engaged in a ritual bathing as Brettell believes or may be bowing before a vague natural stone construct (Brettel, however, denies any hint of religion).A pool of red flows at, or under, her chest that may represent bathing water as Brettell offers or perhaps a hint of light or shadow or, more intensely, the figure’s blood. Red appears again in one of the three dancing figures. In this landscape Gauguin allows for several possible interpretations.
Under close examination the artist seems to encourage bewilderment by producing a scene of ambiguity and mystery. If Gauguin acted as an ethnologist―as art critic and historian Roger Marx compared him in November 1893 – it would be impossible for the artist to depict an authentic blood sacrifice in Tahiti since, in the 1890s, it was prohibited by French law. The artist then dreams a scene in a Tahitian setting of a woman and her associates offering a savage blood sacrifice to a stone god. This piece asks questions about Gauguin’s attitude for Tahiti and sheds light on some of his deepest desires in Paris. The formulation of the sky, waters, and ground create a Synthetist landscape but it is the Symbolist figures and the mystery surrounding their presence that is the central power of the work. This use of mysterious figures in a landscape is found in Gauguin’s previous work in Martinique (“the land of the Creole gods”50 he wrote in a letter) and in Brittany (figs. 7 and 8).
fig. 7. Gauguin, By the Sea, oil on canvas, signed and dated at lower left, P. Gauguin 87, 18 1/8 x 24 in. (46 x 61 cm), private collection, Paris.
Fig. 8. Gauguin, Be Mysterious, 1890, low relief, polychrome lime tree wood 73 x 95 x 5 cm., Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
In Tahitian Landscape, on the other side of the green, blue, and peach-color chasm heavily outlined on the right and halted by a built-up “shore,” the three dancing women who are barely modeled or detailed appear to be observed by an idol figure. It lies in blue shadow in dense foliage and is nearly invisible. As in Tahitians Fishing (see part 2 of “Savagery in Civilization…” ) it is by way of foliage, boulders, and rounded forms of the landscape that there emerges a similarity with the jigsaw puzzle-like lagoon in that same year’s Day of the Gods. However, the forms in Tahitian Landscape are flatter and less organic-looking. As popular graphic art methods could not produce the deliberately pale character of the surface Brettell proposes that this image was made as a transfer or counterproof on wetted paper from a now lost watercolor matrix.51
Thomson, Gauguin, p. 130.
Brettell, p. 359.
Thomson, Gauguin, p. 152.
Brettell, p. 80; “denies any hint of religion” and “bathing water”- Brettell, p. 359. Brettell’s denial here of Tahitian religion does not preclude his proposing that the bowing figure may be an adaptation of the naked and penitent Magdalen at the foot of the cross, which is part of Catholic tradition.
To look at a selection of four prints produced by Paul Gauguin in Paris between his two long trips to Tahiti not only elucidates his artistic ideas but benefits by this brief commentary on his methods and techniques he used to make them. The consummate craftsman – even Gauguin’s modern art opponents largely conceded this point – his traced monotypes (also called watercolor transfer drawings or printed drawings) employed a simple but creatively unique process to offset his watercolor or gouache designs onto paper.
The first step in Gauguin’s process was to place slightly damp paper over his hand-drawn design and with the pressure he exerted from the back of an ordinary spoon the moisture in the paper and the water-based medium worked to transfer the reverse image of the design onto the paper. Gauguin could then reprint his design so that each would be variable images, imparting a pale, soft value to the work – outcomes the artist sought for these Tahitian pieces.
By 1898, back in Tahiti, Gauguin created a new print medium which was essentially a reversal of early Renaissance silverpoint. His new technique required Gauguin to apply a coat of ink to one sheet of paper, place a second sheet over it, and draw on the top sheet with pencil or crayon. The pressure of the drawing instrument transferred the ink from the first sheet of paper onto the back or verso side of the top sheet. Gauguin greatly admired his technical discovery and considered it an expression of “childlike simplicity.”
Fig.1 . Tahitians Fishing, 1893/5 – watercolor and black ink, over pen and brown ink, on vellum laid down on brown wove paper, 9.84 x 12.48 inches (250 x 317 mm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward McCormick Blair collection.
In this small work (fig. 1) the figures are flat, with little modeling or detail. The impact created is one of a dream. Gauguin presents a primitive world that is half-naked and childlike. In its Synthetist elements, it is reminiscent of a major painting he completed the year before, Fatata te Miti (By the Sea) (fig.2). It shares its flat colors, abstract shapes, and unbroken curves uniting to make an integrated decorative pattern. Yet Tahitians Fishing is a sketch. It is divided into distinct zones like Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua) (fig.3) created by Gauguin in the same years. The grassy foreground and sea/vegetation/sandy shore create two horizontal zones. These are bisected by a dominant vertical―a tree―that divides the piece into informal quadrants. The tree, a powerful element, is a void – a space of black ink – while its branches and roots are delineated with the same facile modeling as the rest of the composition. The pair of main roots and twelve or so ancillary roots sit ambiguously atop the grassy foreground with its childlike delineation of blades and sinks into sandy soil. The tree surrounds a naked squatting female, her bare breasts exposed. Is she hiding herself from a second woman working with a net in the area of sand and sea? This second worker is aided by three others who are perhaps completely nude figures that stand waist deep in water. Two are male but the third figure’s sex is uncertain as s/he is turned so the viewer sees only a naked back. There is very little personality to the figures. They are, instead, composition elements like cartoons.
Fig. 2. Gauguin, Fatata te Miti (By the Sea), 1892, oil on canvas, 67.9 x 91.5 cm (26 3/4 x 36 in.), The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Fig.3. Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua), 1894, oil on canvas, 26 7/8 x 36 in. (68.3 x 91.5 cm), The Art Institute of Chicago.
In the time Gauguin was making Tahitians Fishing, he was working on the text and suite of ten wood block prints for his book Noa Noa. Tahitians Fishing also involves text and the visual image. Gauguin places a verse by living French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) into a visual work about Tahiti. This artistic admixture could be part of Gauguin’s reaction to one of Symbolist art’s major indictment by naturalist modern art critics – that it is preoccupied with ideas and should be subsumed exclusively into the domain of literature.41 Gauguin’s literary career began in the midst of this critical argument that predated his first departure to Tahiti and maintained itself at his return. From an artist who confronted disparate parts to create something new, Tahitians Fishing is a hybrid piece of Symbolist literary and visual elements using Gauguin’s obsession with Tahiti as its unifying theme. It indicates that the artist was reflecting on his Tahitian art, if not searching for more. Many Paris critics believed his art confused East and West. Gauguin gives validity to that belief by putting a poem at the top of the sheet in its own artistic “zone” and not straying into the visual image itself or making letters into art. While his pillaging from the Western world could set Gauguin’s critics alight, sympathizers saw his juxtapositions as a productive and creative artistic strategy.42 Verlaine’s nature poem – “Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà/Pleurant sans cesse./Dis, qu’as tu fait, toi que voilà/De ta jeunesse?”43 – provides another facet to Gauguin’s imposition of the Edenic dimension of good and evil onto the image.
Tahitians Fishing tested Gauguin’s powers to illustrate text which he was working on for Noa Noa, a phrase that means “perfume.” The Man with the Ax (fig.4), a print from this Paris period (1892/94) is a complex of thinned gouache and pen and black ink over pen and brown ink on dark tan wove paper and laid down on cream Japanese paper. At approximately 12 x 9 inches it is – by virtue of its tripartite landscape, stooping figure and monumental and vertical figure enclosed in Cloisonnist dark contour – a retrospective of work done in Tahiti between 1891 and 1893.
Fig. 4. Gauguin, Man with an Ax, 1892/94, thinned gouache with pen and black ink, over pen and brown ink on cream wove paper (discolored to tan), laid down on cream Japanese paper, 317 x 228 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Tahitians Fishing is new as it reflects Tahiti and adds a contemporary French Symbolist text. It contains similarities in composition, theme, and figures to the forward-looking painting Day of the Gods. Both share the image of a “Savage Eve” figure which obsessed Gauguin throughout 1893 to 189544 and both have a dominant central vertical―a tree in Tahitians Fishing and an idol in Day of the Gods. Each has distinct horizontal zones and ground-and-water block-like forms. Even the amoeba-shaped waters in Day of the Gods are reflected in the steeply pitched water-as-sky in Tahitians Fishing. Maurice Denis identified Gauguin by his bright, unnatural colors45, but this exercise piece is more than that. It explores compositional forms and themes of his Tahitian and Synthetist works and includes avant-gardist French Symbolist verse. Gauguin’s work in these pieces is not always simply, as Julien Leclerq wrote in December 1894, “(the) transposing into another medium motifs from his Tahitian works.”46 Gauguin may have used this particular Verlaine poem if he was anywhere outside Paris, but it seems less likely. He continued to experiment with mixing text and visual image, a courageous act in the face of conservative critics who, with artists Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, castigated Gauguin for the repetitive elaboration and recombination of pictorial ideas. On the recto side of this work no signature of any sort is detectable.
Salvesen, p. 51.
“What have you done – you who are Forever crying? Speak! What have you done – you who are so young?” – my translation.
In May 1894 during a working visit to Brittany filled with nostalgia, a 45-year-old Paul Gauguin broke his leg above the ankle in a scuffle with sailors in broad daylight. In France just nine months after being away in French Polynesia for over two years, Gauguin was spotted playing the role of bohemian artist in Concarneau, an old fishing port which had become a busy international art colony. Gauguin made an attractive target in his outlandish attire and shoulder-length hair huddled with a coterie of young art disciples, a pet monkey, and a Ceylonese child mistress whose dark skin offended late-nineteenth-century social norms as much as her age.1
Exhibiting his penchant for questioning prevailing assumptions and bringing to Brittany the easy sexual standards he experienced in Tahiti, a dissolute Gauguin now paid for his personal freedom with serious bodily harm. The violent incident added to the changed relations Gauguin found for himself in France since his return to his homeland in late August 1893. After his 27-month artistic exile in the middle of the South Pacific starting in April 1891, the midcareer artist strove to re-establish ties among dealers, critics, collectors and artists in Paris. He had a misguided anticipation for sales of his new Tahitian paintings based on his past artistic triumphs and the handful of new Tahiti work he sent ahead of his arrival into France for exhibition in Paris to carry his objectives forward.2 In Brittany Gauguin’s injury required him to be hospitalized and put on morphine and alcohol as pain killers for a two-month recuperation. By late August 1894 Gauguin’s leg had healed where he traveled to nearby Quimper for his assailants’ trial. The artist had sued the ruffians for 3,000 francs, but local justice meted out a small fine.3
Gauguin did not rest on his laurels or his recent injury. Rather, since his return to France, Gauguin engaged himself almost nonstop in self-promotion on behalf of his new Tahitian art portfolio. During his recuperation Gauguin found he was unable to paint in his first full summer back in France in 1894. This was a hard irony since in his Tahitian work between 1892 and 1893 Gauguin was primarily a painter. In summer 1894 he turned to work exclusively on wood cuts and monotypes (the latter art form also called transfer drawings, watercolor transfer drawings, printed drawings, and traced monotypes). Working alone and with other artists from the Pont-Aven group, Gauguin experimented with new images, new arrangements and new applications without committing anything to oil. These print techniques ―different from etching which Gauguin found too dainty― afforded him the painterly effects, unusual textures and distorted forms that he sought and which his opponents in the modern art world vocally despised. For the sake of this post’s length and logic, a fuller presentation of four of these “savage” prints which Gauguin finished in Paris between 1893 and 1895 (among scores of others) can be discovered in a separate blog post. Excluding the collective power of his ten large and earliest woodcuts made for Noa Noa, no works of graphic art by Gauguin in this Paris period are more mysterious than the ones this article will consider – namely, Tahitians Fishing (involving Savage Eves), Tahitian Landscape (blood sacrifices), Tahitian Idol – The Goddess Hina (vying spirits in the natural world) and Oviri based on Gauguin’s ceramic sculpture.
In November 1894 when Gauguin was able to return from Brittany to Paris he opened the door to his studio to find that its two rooms had been ransacked save for own art work. It had been the undertaking of Gauguin’s Ceylonese mistress, called Annah la Javanaise, who had exacted her sense of savage justice on the man from France for her services.4
Following his passage from Tahiti into France on August 30, 18935, Paul Gauguin, virtually penniless, stayed in Paris with art historian Émile Schuffenecker with whom he had been estranged and by more than the High Seas.6 From fall 1892 into early spring 1893 Gauguin had been sending to Paris his new work from Tahiti ―nine canvases in total – including his first portrait of a Tahitienne, namely, Vahine no te Tiare of 1892 which today hangs in Copenhagen. Displayed in the Boulevard Montmartre gallery of Boussod, Valadon & Cie (the former Goupil & Cie),7 critical reaction to the portrait which was so important to Gauguin turned out to be mixed.8 The portrait might have served as a bellwether to Gauguin and those who paid attention to his work. Its tepid, divided response would mark the reception he received for his much larger Tahitian oeuvre in Paris between 1893 and 1895.
While Edgar Degas spoke well of and invested in Gauguin’s work, the two were not personally close.9 It was in conversation with younger artists and one older artist, Odilon Redon, that in January or February 1890 Gauguin was inspired to pursue the idea of a “Studio of the Tropics.” Although Redon by late summer of 1890 told Gauguin he was against his leaving France – whether to Madagascar, as first entertained, or as it happened, to Tahiti in April 1891, Gauguin was clearly not persuaded. Redon was convinced that Gauguin’s artistic development in Europe would be significant and appealed to Gauguin to reconsider.10 Gauguin wrote to Redon from Le Pouldu in September of 1890:
“…The reasons you give me for staying in Europe are more flattering than they are likely to convince me. My mind is made up…I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it…Here, Gauguin is finished, and nothing more will be seen of him…”11
In Tahiti Gauguin made his home in Papeete and soon after in Mataiea before he returned to Paris two years and three months later in August 1893. He stayed in the French capital for twenty-two months until a second departure for Tahiti in June 1895 when this time, indeed, nothing more would be seen of him (“My design, Gauguin wrote, “(is) to bury myself in the South Sea Islands.”)12 It could not be known until December 1894 that Gauguin had decided to return to Tahiti – although in 1894 his letters expressed longing for it.13 His time in Paris possessed a “liminal” quality in that he occupied a position at or on both sides of a boundary or threshold of Tahiti. From 1893 to 1895 in Paris Gauguin had two distinct worlds to draw on and consider for his art – one, an echo of Redon’s advice in 1890 to develop artistically in Europe and two, his memory of Tahiti from 1891 to 1893. The South Seas had imparted to Gauguin new images for him to paint that he could not find in France – and he worked to promote these discoveries and ruminate on them in current work. Unlike Brittany of which the artist was fond, Tahiti surrounded Gauguin with a strangeness that allowed his imagination to take greater hold of the mystery, savagery, and otherness that he increasingly sought to express in his artistic work. Both worlds can be found in Gauguin’s art of this Paris period – Tahiti in the new images based on primitiveness and savagery and France in the forms of Symbolism and Synthetism that Gauguin learned and helped lead after 1888. Each of these worlds – one definitely savage and the other civilized or also savage based on one’s art critical perspective in early 1890s Paris – informed the other in formal terms and the impressions inspired by the artist’s dreams, exaggerations and inventions.
Paul Gauguin had come back to France actually intending to stay14 but as time passed his connection to the faraway islands became too strong to forsake. At Café Escoffier in Paris on December 7, 1894, Gauguin announced his return to Tahiti and left France forever the following year. In those 660 days in France Gauguin worked to force rapid public acceptance of his work and ended up being all but shunned by the French public. Gauguin brought to Tahiti in 1891 the experience of all the art he had made in the late 1880s with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles and with Émile Bernard and Paul Sérusier in Brittany as well as his deep admiration for Redon’s noirs. Primitive culture in Polynesia, while truncated and absorbed into French rule, appealed to him and in the Paris interlude Gauguin obsessed about the island in his literature and art.15
Gauguin took the initiative to woo the French art-buying public and even the State to embrace the sixty-six paintings that comprised his Tahitian portfolio. His failure to take Paris by storm in this period― book-ended by a two-week commercial exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s in November 1893 and a Drouot auction on February 18, 1895 ―is blamed for his leaving for Tahiti the second and final time. These disappointments had a financial bearing – he sold only eleven of forty-one paintings from Tahiti at Durand-Ruel’s and just nine out of forty seven works at the Hôtel Drouot – but their apathetic reception affected more than a mercantile Gauguin. It is a historical irony that one of Gauguin’s unsold Tahitian paintings from this period – his 1892 double portrait “Nafea Faa Ipoipo” (When Will You Marry?)” – was sold in February 2015 by a Swiss family foundation to a group of state museums in Qatar for a record nearly $300 million. In 1893 the artist priced it at no higher than 3,000 francs or about $15,000 in 2015 dollars.
In art work Gauguin was preparing for the public and for his private rumination he continued his “searching deep within himself”16 begun in Tahiti with its exotic theme being paramount. Throughout the period of 1893 to 1895, in Paris and in Brittany, Gauguin escaped into a Tahitian world of his own imaginings by way of his highly experimental graphic work.17 Gauguin brought to Paris with him his notes and sketch books from Tahiti and meditated on them during the course of his Paris sojourn. He thought of these mementos as “my letters, my secrets”18 and one wonders about his intention to commercially exhibit these trial works. In summer 1894 Gauguin gave away some of his watercolors19 and while this action may serve as a memento or payment to a friend, it points to a tentativeness with which Gauguin viewed these first works. “The world I am discovering,” Gauguin wrote in a letter months later, “is a Paradise the outlines of which I shall have merely sketched out and between the sketch and the realization of the vision there is a long way to go.”20
Aside from around fifteen paintings he did in France from 1893 to 1895, Gauguin’s work is mainly (with some overlap in art forms) in the graphic arts and literature, including Noa Noa, Ancien Culte Mahorie, and Cahier Pour Aline. Starting in Paris during this period and until his death in May 1903, Gauguin worked to transform himself from an artist to an artist and writer. The general idea for this effort was not original to Gauguin; it may even be a reaction to his critics who derided him as a “writer’s painter” – that is, one who obscured his instinctive painterly talent with literary or ideal concerns. Criticism of Gauguin’s art for this specific reason was deep and extensive in 1890s France by many leading intellectuals who favored the prevailing Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist art forms which promoted a naturalist and modernist art and that Gauguin had abandoned in the late 1880s. Gauguin angered and annoyed artists and critics and they derided his current work forcefully. According to Félix Fénéon Gauguin’s art was unnatural, irrational and illogical and constituted a step backwards for modern art which had staked a secular, democratic, and progressive course. For Camille Pissarro and Impressionist artists such as Paul Signac – Gauguin’s Synthetist and Symbolist styles and forms were retrograde and should be actively resisted. “Let us study Delacroix, Corot, Puvis, Manet and leave those (other) humbugs to their own devices,”21 wrote Signac in 1895 about Monsieur Gauguin.
Although brief and contentious, Paris turned out to be a productive time for Gauguin’s art.22 In December 1893 following decent sales after his exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s, Gauguin wrote from Paris to his wife Mette in Copenhagen and pointedly did not discuss his earnings which likely netted him about 10,000 francs – or $50,000 in 2015 dollars.23 Gauguin talked around the money issue to reflect on his attitude for any future art world gambit which would likely be undertaken immediately. “My show,” Gauguin wrote to his faraway spouse, “has not in fact given the results that might have been expected but we must look facts in the face…The most important thing is that my exhibition had a very great artistic success, has even provoked passion and jealousy. The press has treated me …rationally, with words of praise. For the moment I am considered by many people to be the greatest modern painter.”24
Many viewers, however, were perplexed by the artist’s refusal to translate into French the Tahitian titles found in scores of his paintings. Others were amused by the bohemian role he had assumed for himself in astrakhan hat and gilet. Gauguin was obsessed with exhibiting his major Tahitian paintings, continuing to produce that kind of work in Paris and trying to explain this portfolio to the public through his studio invitations, writings, and “image translations.” He wanted to see his Tahitian work conquer the Paris art world.25 While many Parisians did not accept or understand Gauguin’s Tahiti art they were fascinated by it. The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened in May 1893 and closed just ten days before Gauguin’s Tahiti show opened at Durand-Ruel’s. The Chicago Fair, inspired by the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, showcased ethnological “villages” that attracted nearly thirty million people. Despite a set course for Impressionism as the parameter for modern art, Gauguin’s cutting-edge Tahiti art could not be ignored completely by Parisians who felt an intense curiosity about exotic locales, especially French Polynesia.26 In Paris Gauguin showed himself to be tireless to capitalize on this current passion. In his letters he ceaselessly complains, justifies his every action, demands extraordinary things of others and lays grand plans for himself because he believed his artistic career was on the verge of greatness but frustratingly incomplete. He poured his energy into his several artistic exhibitions in Paris and elsewhere, produced critical articles and letters for journals, and began to pull together his Tahiti adventures to write Noa Noa with his occasional friend Charles Morice. Morice added a preface, a chapter entitled “Songeries,” as well as the poems. Portions of Noa Noa (“pleasing fragrance”) appeared for the first time in La Revue Blanche, between October 15 and November 1, 1897, more than two years after Gauguin returned to Tahiti. Yet Gauguin used the writing project in late 1893 to excuse himself from traveling to Copenhagen to see his wife Mette.27
In Paris Gauguin produced a slew of graphic work and some painting and sculpture. His message from the French capital to his far off wife was interchangeable with what it had been from Tahiti: “I am up to my neck in work!” and that he needed money.28 Regardless of his committed efforts at self-promotion and artistic expansion in Paris – including all aspects of publicity, catalog production, and stock preparation for his Tahiti exhibitions as well as mending fences with old friends and rejoining social networks such as Stéphane Mallarmé’s “les jeudis”29 – criticism and sales receipts did not fulfill the artist’s hopes for his new art. Following Durand-Ruel’s, Gauguin in January 1894 rented a two-room studio on Rue Vercingétorix and fills it with his unsold art that amounted to dozens of paintings and sculptures as well as his current work, some flea-market exotica, and an ethnographic collection. He famously decorated the walls in chrome yellow and olive green―reminiscent of Pierre Loti’s residence in western France with its valuable Far Eastern art collection30― and invited friends to share in his les mardis where they played music, told travel stories, and the host read from his work-in-progress, Noa Noa. 31
One question asked about Gauguin’s Tahitian and Tahitian-inspired oeuvre was which of it is strictly Tahitian and which is western influenced – or, what is direct observation and what is artifice? Exceptional global coordinates did not prevent Gauguin’s first Tahitian experience from 1891 to 1893 to have a European and specifically French flavor. At Durand-Ruel’s exhibition one critic traced the origins of Gauguin’s Ia Orana Maria of 1891, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to a late-1870s work by Jules Bastien-Lepage. In the French press he scoffed at Gauguin’s canvas as “nothing but a Bastien-Lepage done Tahitian style.”32 This sort of critical charge underscores the ground-breaking nature of Gauguin’s art as it introduced primitivism into the European cosmopolitan avant-garde at the turn of the century. Tahiti was an official French colony since 1880 and like most Frenchmen Gauguin had little to no knowledge of its indigenous beliefs and customs. Further, he found no indigenous cultural artifacts during his first stay although he did late in his stay discover published sources for indigenous objects and practices that influenced his art by way of a Belgian scholar.33 In addition to Gauguin’s main artistic threat at “terrorizing reality” and creating ugly art as Fénéon and others strongly postulated, the challenge to Gauguin’s lack of direct observation of Tahitian subject matter or overall Tahitian expertise helped to dismiss his new art as “inauthentic.” Gauguin’s personal life was also fodder for criticism by his artistic enemies. For instance, that it was discovered that Gauguin procured his exotic mistress, Annah la Javanaise, only after his return to Paris stealing her from a French singer after meeting her possibly through art dealer Ambroise Vollard lent an almost boorish air to his art-world bearing. That after1895 Annah la Javanaise became Alphonse Mucha’s mistress in the same building in which she ransacked Gauguin’s studio in August or September 1894, was a further curiosity.34
Perhaps to be expected from leading Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, each balked before Gauguin’s forty-one Tahitian canvases during his one-man show at Durand-Ruel’s in November 1893. Two days before the show closed Pissarro wrote to his cher Lucien: “I saw Gauguin; he told me his theories about art and assured me that the young would find salvation by replenishing themselves at remote and savage sources. I told him that this art did not belong to him, that he was a civilized man and hence it was his function to show us harmonious things. We parted, each unconvinced. Gauguin is certainly not without talent, but how difficult it is for him to find his own way! He is always poaching on someone’s ground; now he is stealing from the savages of Oceania.”35 Yet during that two-week show Gauguin received a complimentary review from Octave Mirbeau, his old champion, and a reported verbal endorsement from major Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. While some new paintings done by Gauguin in Paris are clear aesthetic hybrids of Europe and Polynesia―such as Portrait de Upaupa Schneklud and Aita Parari te Tamari Vahine Judith, both from 1894―Vaïraumati tei oa (Her Name is Vairaumati), a painting he started in Tahiti in 1892 based on his new-found knowledge of indigenous gods, received its mystery and savagery out of French Symbolism and this trend of inculcating his Tahitian iconography with contemporary if controversial European influences would significantly deepen in Paris.
The argument over whether Gauguin’s Tahitian oeuvre was either authentic, exploitative colonialism or the condition for an artistic sham continued during his Paris stay. After it was revealed that Gauguin was returning to Tahiti in spring 1895, the regular art critic for Mercure de France ridiculed his decision based on the artist’s published contention that his rendering of the unnatural and the ideal were his muses. “Why must he leave his Breton digs,” Camille Mauclair wrote, “and exile himself in Tahiti to execute his painting which could, as Gauguin himself said, be done without leaving his room?” Even the artist traveling to Tahiti could be viewed, under certain critical conditions, as inauthentic to Gauguin’s own Tahitian-inspired modern art.36
Lagging sales in Paris and in Copenhagen of Gauguin’s Tahitian art portfolio remained a sore point for the artist. Whatever the date or venue― Durand-Ruel’s from November 10-25, 1893; an auction of Père Tanguy’s art collection with six works by Gauguin on June 2, 1894; a sales-exhibition in his atelier of Gauguin’s woodcuts, monotypes, wood sculptures and Tahitian paintings from December 2-9, 1894; or a February 18, 1895 Drouot auction of 47 works of art – sales performance for the “greatest modern painter” consistently underwhelmed. Such headwinds pushed Gauguin to “face facts” in a changed manner. In December 1893 he had bragged to Mette about bidders at Durand-Ruel’s going as high as 1,500 francs on his asking price of 2,000 to 3,000 francs for a Tahitian canvas and he conceiving a potential fallback price of 1,000 francs for each of his paintings. A year later, hungry for cash and wanting to unload his 4-year-old stock, Gauguin offered the same dealer thirty-five Tahitian canvases for 600 francs each.37
What might have occurred for Gauguin if he had stayed in Paris instead of going back to Tahiti, while impossibly speculative, is hinted at by his choice of Swede August Strindberg to write his catalog introduction for the February 1895 Drouot auction. While Strindberg could be simply viewed as another national hybrid – that of the Nordic lands and France – by the mid 1890s there could be no more propitious moment for Gauguin to interact with this avant-garde literary figure. About Gauguin’s age, Strindberg had also broke with naturalism around 1890 and subsequently was in personal and artistic crisis as he sought new arts forms in an emerging Symbolism. For his proposed catalog introduction Strindberg recognized Gauguin to be a savage and what defined a savage, according to the playwright, novelist and poet, is that he created art work that is neither beautiful nor harmonious but original and unique.
In mid1890s Paris the city was in the midst of a technological revolution. It was in color lithography and that mechanical art form proliferated among artists like wildfire which a competitive Gauguin could not have failed to notice. His reaction to the popular modern modality was to remain undeterred in his pursuit of the low-tech woodcut. The savage, Strindberg wrote, is independent and uncompromising. In the rush to technology, Gauguin’s defiance – or what Mette called his “most monstrously brutal egoism” –contributed to the woodcut’s revival at this time. More important, in the graphic arts no contemporary French artist could approach Gauguin’s power and vitality.38 In the Paris period from 1893 to 1895 – and extending to 1900 – Gauguin had no dealer representation. Gauguin broke and then drifted away from the security of Impressionism that Degas, Monet, Renoir and Cassatt enjoyed.39 Strindberg, an artistic visionary, could bring little to Gauguin by way of collectors or patrons. Like Gauguin, he brought the integrity of his artistic experience which around that time was regrettably bordering on insanity. Three months before leaving France, Gauguin, resigned or relishing his social and artistic isolation, wrote to writer-artist Maurice Denis in March 1895. Gauguin wrote to congratulate the younger artist on an article he published on Armand Séguin, Gauguin’s print-making comrade in Brittany in summer 1894―and includes this short line on a modern artist’s role that might serve as Gauguin’s epitaph in France:
“What prompts me to write you is the pleasure it gives me to see painters looking after their own business….Go on all of you fighting with the brush as well as the pen, and in my retreat (in the South Seas) I shall cherish this fervent hope.”40
The Paris interlude for Gauguin was about reworking and reinterpreting his first Tahitian experience. Whether Breton coifs or Tahitian pareos, Gauguin uses them to express his themes of distant memory, savagery, mystery, darkness, androgyny, sensual melancholy, exoticism, and the hieratic. His art united disparate objects and themes but under a veil of mystery and ambiguity. As a craftsman he uses symbolical objects to express a deeper idea than the surface meaning of the artifacts that a viewer can identify. Along with his unsold canvases Gauguin filled his Paris studio with Tahitian fabrics, wooden sculptures, weapons, trophies, and photographs and then advertised for collectors to come and steep themselves in the new language of modern art.41 Through hard work and artistic vision in France involving Synthetism, Symbolism, and from 1893 to 1895, Tahitianism, Gauguin remained an avant-garde leader. Gauguin’s art divided critical opinion but ever the passionate individualist who possessed an optimistic expectation for himself he saw much of his ambition realized in Paris in those short months. His wife Mette was responsive to his interests and he received his share of critical praise and sales for his exhibitions. In his art Gauguin combined fact and fantasy, reality and imagination and used a variety of artistic media and innovative techniques.42 In Paris by way of his re-workings of his Tahitian experience Gauguin deepened his vision of the islands and served his appetite to be, as Gustave Flaubert might arrange, “violent and revolutionary” in his work. Between 1893 and 1895 Impressionist Paris is artistically lost in the background to Paul Gauguin: there is no more than one canvas of its snow-covered roofs out of a courtyard window that was painted by him. The importance of Tahiti in Gauguin’s psyche in this Paris interlude cannot be overstated – and it becomes increasingly evident after his return there which soon resulted in his second (and final) Polynesian sojourn.
Mathews, Nancy Mowll, Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001, p. 205.
Malingue, Maurice, Paul Gauguin: Letters to his Wife and Friends, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1949 (Letter 150, Gauguin to William Molard), p. 193.
“First Tahitian period Gauguin primarily painter…” Brettell, Richard, et.al., The Art of Paul Gauguin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and The Art Institute of Chicago, 1988, p. 297; “exclusively on watercolor transfers and woodcuts” – Ibid., p. 293; “print techniques” – Boyle-Tuner, Caroline, in collaboration with Samuel Josefowitz, foreward by Douglas Druick, The Prints of the Pont-Aven School: Gauguin and His Circle in Brittany, Abbeville Press, New York, 1986, p.106; “atelier…plundered…”, Bretell, p. 294.
For Gauguin’s return date, August 30, 1893 according to Gloria Groom in Brettell, p. 291 and August 23, 1893 according to Nancy Mowll Mathews in Mathews, p. 193.
Mathews, p. 194.
Mathews, p. 300; Thomson, Belinda, Gauguin, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1897 (reprinted 1997), p 138.
Thomson, p 138.
Rewald, John, Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Third Edition, 1978, p. 414.
Malingue, (Letter 157, Gauguin to Maurice Denis), p. 200.
Mathews, p. 207.
Salvesen, Britt, Gauguin, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 2001, p. 57.
Thomson, Gauguin, p.156.
Brettell, p. 300.
Exhibition Pamphlet, “Intimate Encounters Paul Gauguin and the South Pacific,” The Edward McCormick Blair Collection, September 6, 2003 to January 11, 2004, the Art Institute of Chicago.
Mathews, p. 203.
Malingue, (Letter 154, Gauguin to August Strindberg), February 5, 1895, p.197.
see Georges Lecomte (1867-1958), “Salon XX, conférence de M. Georges Lecomte,” L’Art moderne, 28 February 1892, p. 67 and Francois Thiébault-Sisson (1856-1944), “Les Petits Salons” in Le Temps, December 2, 1893. “What artist would be more gifted if exclusively literary friendships did not cloud his judgment and paralyze the instinctive sense of painting that he has?” -quoted in Mathews, p. 203. For Félix Fénéon, Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac quote, see Marlais, Michael, Conservative Echoes in Fin-de-Siècle Parisian Art Criticism, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1992, pp. 98-101.
see Brettell, p. 297; Delevoy, Robert L., Symbolists and Symbolism, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York, 1982, p. 159; Stevenson, Lesley, Gauguin, Gallery Books/W.H. Smith Publishers, Inc., New York, 1990, p. 56; Crepaldi, Gabriele, trans. Sylvia Tombesi-Walton, Gauguin, Dorling Kindersley, London, 1998, p. 92.
Mathews, p. 197.
Malingue, (Letter 145, Gauguin to Mette), pp. 187-88.
“image translations” –Brettell, p. 330; Druick, Douglas W. and Zegers, Peter Kort, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, Thames & Hudson, New York 2001, p. 342.
Malingue, letter 142, Gauguin to his wife, September 1893, p.186.
Mathews, p. 195-196.
Ibid., p. 197.
Brettell, p. 301.
Thomson, Gauguin, p.146.
“European sources” – Ibid., p. 143; “little knowledge of indigenous beliefs and customs” and “by way of a Belgian” – Ibid., p.156; “found no indigenous cultural artefacts” – Ibid., p. 161.
Salvesen, pps. 50-51.
Pissarro, Camille, Letters to his Son Lucien, edited by John Rewald, Peregrine Smith, Inc., Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City, 1981, p. 280.
Mirbeau – Mathews, p.197; Mallarmé reportedly said: “It is extraordinary that one should be able to put so much mystery into so much splendor.” – Dorra, Henri, Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, University of California press, 1994, p.209; Mauclair – Mathews, p.210.
“bragged about bidders..” Malingue (Letter 145, Gauguin to Mette), p. 187-88; “thirty-five canvases for 600 francs each…” -Brettell, p. 294.
Stringberg –Mathews, p. 207; color lithography and woodcuts revival – Shapiro, p. 133; “brutal egoism”-quoted in Claire Frèches-Thory, “The Exhibition at Durand-Ruel,” in Gauguin Tahiti, George T.M. Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory, MFA Publications, 2004, p. 84.
Ibid., p. 200.
Malingue, (Letter 157, Gauguin to Maurice Denis), pp. 200-201.