Paul Gauguin Tahitian paintings
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Painter Paul Gauguin sought to escape European civilization and technology when he took up residence in the French colony of Tahiti and adopted a simple lifestyle which he felt to be more natural than the one he had left behind.
Living in Mataiea Village in Tahiti, he painted "Fatata te Miti" ("By the Sea"), "Ia Orana Maria" (Ave Maria) and other depictions of Tahitian life. He moved to Punaauia in 1897, where he created the masterpiece painting "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" and then lived the rest of his life in the Marquesas Islands, returning to France only once, when he painted at Pont-Aven.
His works of that period are full of quasi-religious symbolism and an exoticized view of the inhabitants of Polynesia. In Polynesia, he sided with the native peoples, clashing often with the colonial authorities and with the Catholic Church. During this period he also wrote the book Avant et après (before and after), a fragmented collection of observations about life in Polynesia, memories from his life and comments on literature and paintings.Gauguin’s search for the primitive was manifestly a desire for more sexual freedom than was available in nineteenth-century Europe, and this is reflected in his such paintings asThe Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892), Parau na te Varua ino (1892), Anna the Javanerin (1893), Te Tamari No Atua (1896), and Cruel Tales (1902), among others. Gauguin's view of Tahiti as an earthly Arcadia of free love, gentle climate, and naked nymphs is quite similar, if not identical, to that of the classical pastoral of academic art, which has shaped Western perceptions of rural life for millennia. One of his Tahitian paintings is even called "Tahitian Pastoral" and another "Where Do We Come From". Writing about "Where Do We Come From?" in a review entitled "Back to Paradise", New York Times Art Critic Hilton Kramer quotes art historian George T.M. Shackelford, who wrote:
Although, [Gauguin] downplayed the painting's relationship to the murals of Puvis on the grounds of procedure and intention, in formal terms he cannot have hoped that his figured landscape—for all its apparent rejection of classical formulas and execution—could escape comparison with the timeless groves that Puvis had popularized in murals for the museums in Lyon and Rouen, as well as the great hemicycle of the Sorbonne."
In this way Gauguin extended the academic pastoral tradition of Beaux Arts schools which had hitherto been based solely on idealized European figures copied from Ancient Greek sculpture to include non-European models.
Gauguin also believed he was celebrating Tahitian society and defending the Tahitians against European colonialism. Feminist postcolonial critics, however, decry the fact that Gauguin took adolescent mistresses, one of them as young as thirteen. They remind us than like many men of his time and later, Gauguin saw freedom, especially sexual freedom, strictly from the male point of view. Using Gauguin as an example of what is "wrong" with primitivism, these critics conclude that, in their view, elements of primitivism include the “dense interweave of racial and sexual fantasies and power both colonial and patriarchal”. To these critics, primitivism such as Gauguin's demonstrates fantasies about racial and sexual difference in "an effort to essentialize notions of primitiveness” with “Otherness”. Thus, they contend, primitivism becomes a process analogous to Exoticism and Orientalism, as conceived by Edward Said, in which European imperialism and monolithic and degrading views of the "East" by the "West" defined colonized peoples and their cultures. In other words, although Gauguin believed he was celebrating and defending the Tahitians, to the extent that he allegedly saw them as "other", he participated in the outlook of his time and nationality to a greater extent than he realized and in the guise of celebrating them victimized the Tahitians all over again.