Gauguin in the South Seas
The speculations of Diderot and Rousseau, followed by the discoveries of Captain Cook, seemed at last to give some precise geographical location, some substance, to those dreams of Arcadia which for so long had haunted the imaginations of Western man. The shortest excursion to the countryside round Paris and London, or even Rome and Athens, was enough to show how far this was from being the paradise of erotic leisure so beautifully and so treacherously portrayed by Virgil and Giorgione. But elsewhere that paradise existed. “May the day come (and come soon perhaps)” wrote Gauguin—rather tactlessly—to his wife in 1890, “when I will go to bury myself in the woods on some South Sea Island, and live there in ecstasy, peace, and art, surrounded by a new family, far from the European struggle for money. There in Tahiti, in the silence of beautiful tropical nights, I will be able to listen to the sweet murmuring music of the movements of my heart in loving harmony with the mysterious beings that surround me. Free at last, with no money troubles, I will be able to love, to sing and die.”
IF THE STYLE is self-conscious and rhetorical, echoing Baudelaire and Pierre Loti, the sentiment and the belief are sincere enough. But there was another side to the tropics, that side which, an achronistically, we might call Lawrentian—full of dark gods and primitive forces, more savagely real than the effete religions of Western Europe or the cult of commerce which seemed to be taking their place. The lure was appealing enough for any homme moyen sensuel; for a half-starved and unsuccessful painter it was irresistible: There was the cheapness of living and, besides, the fact that “Vincent [Van Gogh] was right: the future belongs to the painter of tropics which have not yet been painted, and we need something new as a subject for the stupid buying public.” And so, after infinite difficulties, Gauguin finally arrived in Tahiti on June 9, 1891. To find what? That not a single one of his expectations was justified. Missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, grotesquely fighting among themselves for the souls of the natives whose beautiful bodies they at least united in trying to conceal; grasping traders and colonial administrators; drunken and diseased sailors—all these ensured that the Golden Age would once again have to be relegated to the past. Great Pan was dead, the old beliefs forgotten. The cost of living was almost as high as in Paris, and “the stupid buying public” was even more bewildered by pictures of the tropics than it had been by those of Brittany. Gauguin found all this out quickly enough, and then proceeded to depict with unparalleled power the Golden Age he had failed to discover, the dark gods that none of his new acquaintances had ever heard of. It is through him more than through anyone else (who now…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.