Gauguin and Polynesia by Nicholas Thomas - review by Michael Prodger

Michael Prodger

Trouble in Paradise

Gauguin and Polynesia


Head of Zeus 453pp £40

In 1891, Paul Gauguin arrived in Tahiti on board the Vire and, according to one witness, stepped ashore wearing a cowboy hat and un grand air de profond dédain. He could ill afford such disdain: he had long desired to live and work among the local people in the tropics but they hooted with laughter at the sight of him. Particularly amused by his long salt-and-pepper hair, they followed him in the street, calling him ta’ata vahine (‘man-woman’). It was not the entrance the painter had intended to make.

The voyage to Tahiti was not Gauguin’s first attempt at freeing himself from ‘everything that is artificial and conventional’. In 1887 he spent some time in Panama, where a shortage of funds – a recurring theme of his life – meant he had to work as a labourer digging the canal. He was also arrested for urinating in public. Later that year he moved on to Martinique, but bouts of dysentery and marsh fever meant that his stay was neither happy nor particularly productive artistically. Then, back in France, there was the ill-fated sojourn with Van Gogh in Arles that culminated in the Dutchman taking a razor to his ear. 

The man who disembarked from the Vire, however, was briefly flush with cash thanks to a successful auction of his paintings in Paris. He was an artist with a name – albeit with a vacillating reputation too. He was both a late starter as a painter and self-taught, taking up art after spells in the navy and as a stockbroker. Nevertheless, as early as 1876 a work of his had been accepted at the Salon, the showcase of French art, and in 1882 he had exhibited around a dozen works at the seventh Impressionist exhibition – a signifier of his avant-garde credentials. 

There would be a two-year return to France between 1893 and 1895 but Polynesia was essentially Gauguin’s home for the last twelve years of his life, up to his death in 1903 at the age of fifty-four. It is the period that defined him as a painter and also accounts for the opprobrium that now so widely greets his name. So it is rich territory to explore for Nicholas Thomas, an anthropologist at Cambridge University, an expert on Pacific cultures and co-curator of the ‘Oceania’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 2018.

Today, says Thomas, ‘it feels difficult just to look at a Gauguin painting, without being told what to think’. The instructions tell us that he was ‘a sexual predator in life and a colonialist in his art’. Thomas’s aim is not to launder Gauguin’s reputation or undo recent decades of feminist art history and postcolonial studies but to eliminate some of the anachronism that inevitably arises when the past is examined, and judged, by contemporary mores.

There is no doubt that Gauguin was a deeply flawed individual. He was, says Thomas, ‘narcissistic … arrogant, brusque and often socially inept’ and a man who ‘never stopped concocting plans to live cheaply, make art, promote it and win renown and reward’. ‘“Gaugin” has become a negative icon,’ he writes, ‘less a body of work or a life, more a sign for a combination of artistic genius, colonial appropriation and sexual abuse.’ But Thomas believes he was more than this. 

Gauguin did not help himself. In a letter of 1897 to his printmaker, he wrote about Pau’ura, the Tahitian girl who lived with him for several years: ‘I have a fifteen-year-old wife who cooks my grub and gives me a great blowjob, whenever I want, and all for the modest reward of a frock, worth ten francs, a month.’ The crassness is inexcusable but, as Thomas notes, for all the unpleasantness of the painter’s tone, the relationship was consensual, and both were aware that it was transactional. Pau’ura ‘came and went as she pleased’. Thomas points out too that a middle-aged man sleeping with a young girl may be reprehensible but that at the time a thirteen-year-old could be legally married in France and America, among many other places.

It is Thomas’s expertise in Polynesian societies that brings many of the insights here. He looks at such things as the fabrics the women are wearing in Gauguin’s paintings and the Tahitian quilts he depicted, which have often been seen as symbols, for Gauguin, of a prelapsarian past; Thomas shows that they were derived from quilts brought to the islands in the 1820s by New England Protestants. He finds traces of Polynesian woodworking styles in Gauguin’s own wooden sculptures but recognises that these represented the lightest of pastiches. What Gauguin’s art never did, Thomas states, was facilitate artistic exchange. He was ‘never other than anchored in European genres, conventions and concept of person’. 

Evidence of this can be found in his paintings of women too. Even if they were not his equals, they had agency and existed in ‘a realm of accommodation and give-and-take’. He painted them as he found them in life rather than as figures of myth and folklore. He may have lamented a disappearing Polynesian past, but the women he encountered belonged emphatically to the late 19th century. Thomas notes, tellingly, that while Gauguin was a prolific painter of clothed island women, nudes form just a small proportion of his work. 

The painter himself was an unreliable narrator of his own life, in both his letters and his account of his Tahitian sojourn, Noa Noa. In a letter to his estranged Danish wife, Mette, he describes his picture Mana’o tupapa’u (1892). It shows a naked girl lying on her front with a spirit figure in the background and is one of the works that is regularly used to condemn him. ‘In this position, she’s all but indecent,’ he admits, but then goes on to claim that the painting is not about sensuality but about the indigenous fear of ghosts (well, he is writing to his wife). This is, Thomas shows, disingenuous: it is ‘the most erotically charged work of art Gauguin ever made’. But Thomas also points to evidence in the painting of Gauguin’s genuine interest in Māori tradition, concluding that the question of whether the work is ‘affirming, or irretrievably pernicious’ is ‘beyond resolution’. 

Thomas carefully contrasts both the paintings and the painter’s mode of living with the reality of Polynesian life for the indigenous people. The Gauguin who emerges is not suddenly a more attractive figure. But his pictures gain nuance and the man himself can be seen as more than merely a sexual predator gorging himself in paradise.

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