“For the Taking”: On the Trail of Paul Gauguin’s Enduring Pursuit of the Primitive

Ed Janzen

My reputation as an artist grows every day but meanwhile I sometimes go three days without eating, which not only destroys my health but saps my energy. This latter I want to recover, and I am going to Panama where I will live like a native. I know of an islet in the Pacific (Tobago) a league from Panama; it is almost uninhabited, free and fertile. I will take my paints and my brushes and rejuvenate myself far from the haunts of men.
I shall still be suffering from the absence of my family but I shall have cast off this disgusting beggary. Don’t worry about my health, the climate is excellent, and one can live on fish and fruit which are to be had for the taking. [1]

Paul Gauguin wrote these words in a letter to his wife, Mette, in early April, 1887. There have been many other instances where Gauguin expressed similar sentiments, however this letter distinguishes itself through its succinct encapsulation of all the elements that empowered him through both love and pain. The letter expresses his faith in the value of his art, his almost visceral relationship with poverty, in which he frequently found himself, his conviction that somewhere in the world, removed from civilization, there were to be found places where poverty did not exist, where the good things of life were to be had ―for the taking‖ and in this agreeable place he would undergo rejuvenation and transformation by becoming a ―native‖ or ―savage‖ himself. These four ideas together comprise the basic expression of the Gauguin myth, a myth he himself sought to perpetuate, and which has endured in a more or less unchanged form, with infrequent critical challenges.

Of the four convictions listed above, only the former two, the value of his art and his relationship to poverty, appear to have been rooted in reality. The latter pair appears to be the fantasies and simultaneously metaphorical and literal departures of a disappointed, sometimes desperate man. Yet, despite Gauguin’s persistent ideal of the existence and rejuvenating potential of a savage’s life in an earthly paradise, we must admit that, in seeking all those things he claimed to seek, he chose his destinations poorly. Tahiti, no unspoiled paradise, had been a French protectorate since 1842, and became a French possession in 1880, when King Pomare V (1842-91) ceded full sovereignty to France.

Contact with European society, however, went back much further. The first recorded sighting of Tahiti by Europeans took place in 1606, when a Spanish ship spotted the island but did not make a landfall. Noteworthy early English visitors included Samuel Wallis (1767), Cook (1774) and the ill-fated H.M.S. Bounty (1789, shortly before its crew mutinied). Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, completing the first French circumnavigation of the globe, landed at Tahiti in April, 1768, and his influential account, published in his Voyage autour du monde, supplied impetus for the utopian ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. Bougainville‘s Tahiti, which he called ―La Nouvelle Cythère,‖ was a kind of earthly paradise where men and women, in the model of the ‗noble savage,‘ co-existed in a state of innocence.Just how ideal or idyllic Tahitian life in 1768 may have been, in reality we can never know. But the Tahiti that Gauguin would have found when he arrived in 1891 must have appeared very different and far less attractive than what Bougainville had reported.

By 1891, Tahiti‘s encounter with Europeans, which had accelerated over the course of the decades, had exacted a heavy toll upon the traditional society. As in so many cases of colonial-indigenous contact, European imports like Christianity, alcohol, prostitution and disease, including venereal diseases, together with the more obviously commercial imports of the franco-colonial economy, had created conditions that might be described as a kind of cultural and/or demographic genocide. Abigail Solomon-Godeau tabulates at least a portion of the parameters of the devastation:

In 1769, the population of Tahiti was reckoned at about 35,000 persons. By the time of Gauguin‘s arrival in Papeete in 1891, European diseases had killed off two thirds of the population. Late 19th-century ethnographers speculated that the Maori peoples were destined for extinction. The pre-European culture had been effectively destroyed; Calvinist missionaries had been at work for a century, the Mormon and Catholic missionaries for 50 years. The hideous muumuus worn by Tahitian women were an index of Christianization and Western acculturation. According to Bengt Danielsson “…virtually nothing remained of the ancient Tahitian religion and mythology….” [2]. Solomon-Godeau aptly summarizes the virtually wholesale replacement of the traditional Tahitian economy with a European one:

 Not only had the indigenous religion been eradicated, but the handicrafts, barkcloth production, art of tattoo and music had equally succumbed to the interdiction of the missionaries or the penetration of European products. The bright-colored cloth used for clothing, bedding and curtains that Gauguin depicted was of European design and manufacture. [3]

In a certain respect, Bougainville‘s vision of the Tahitian earthly paradise was being commercially sold both to the Tahitians and the French travelers by the French colonial trade apparatus. Yet it is surprising that, even today, more than 113 years after Gauguin arrived in Papeete, the Tahitian port, and in contrast to the starker colonial reality, we continue to take Gauguin‘s pained, sometimes fevered declamations at their face value, or at least accept their basic premises or presuppositions uncritically. With few exceptions, the titles of art historical works on Gauguin simply borrow from his own mythic lexicon, for example: Oviri: The Writings of a Savage, The Noble Savage: A Life of Paul Gauguin, or Gauguin: The Quest for Paradise. Recent decades have seen lionizing blockbuster exhibitions of Gauguin‘s work, drawing thousands of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Complete with corporate sponsors and colourful catalogues printed on stiff stock, visitors are treated to ancillary displays documenting the life and character of the artist himself, the result being ―an agonistic and heroicized presentation of the artist‘s life,‖ ―a secular hagiography.[4] Gauguin Tahiti‘, a major show exhibited for the first time this year in Paris and Boston, marking the centenary of the artist‘s death, focused specifically on Gauguin‘s Tahitian work. The story told, however, by the fifteen Gauguin specialists also included in the exhibition catalogue has been, as Martin Bailey observes, ―told before, and ideally one would have wished for more discoveries to have emerged in a show of this scale.[5] Even in works that attempt to remain critical, these tendencies to reinforce the myth of Gauguin, the myth verily perpetuated by the artist himself, persist and continue to inhabit the discourse as a whole. If nothing else, then the real details of Tahitian colonial life should have undermined Gauguin‘s ideals of the “savage”; and yet, the opposite happened. Gauguin never stopped believing in his self-created mythology; indeed, it has proven singly enduring to this day.

Much of what the public knows or believes about Gauguin, together with much of his popularity among art collectors, owes itself to his portrayal and popularization by Somerset Maugham in his novel, The Moon and Sixpence.[6] Maugham himself visited Tahiti in 1917, less than two decades after Gauguin‘s death, to interview people who had known the artist. He conceived of the journey years after having studied some of Gauguin‘s paintings at a Paris exhibition. As Maugham told Wilmon Menard:

I was overwhelmed by the incredible boldness and vigour of the equatorial island landscapes and the enigmatic, but significant, expressions of his Polynesian portraits, the exotic impenetrability. Gauguin had certainly captured on his canvases the true character of Polynesia! … The faces of his islanders were sensual, with an incredible sensuality of a race who had lived for untold centuries close to the sea and earth, without having degenerated into reason. [7]

That Maugham would not, at the time when he made this assessment, embark upon his Tahitian voyage for another eleven years should have raised questions in Menard‘s mind as to how Maugham could speak with any knowledge about the ―true character of Polynesia [8]. But Menard voices no such concerns. Instead, he listens and takes notes while Maugham enthuses about the island‘s primitive nearness to nature.

There was such an informal and merry atmosphere about the Tiare Hotel, that we could easily overlook some of the primitive features of bedchamber and plumbing, to say nothing of huge flying cockroaches, the pariah dogs and cats who fornicated all night long on the metal roof or in the free space under the dwelling.[9] Nothing like a little merriment to overlook the ‗primitive,‘ as represented by colonial backwater norms like questionable bedchambers, tin roofs and populous vermin. For Maugham, the discovery of an original Gauguin, painted on the glass of a Tahitian house, appears to have engendered a little merriment of its own:

Gerald [Sir Gerald Kelly, Maugham‘s traveling companion] and I found the wooden frame dwelling, hidden in thick foliage on the southern coast of the island. When I saw the painting, strangely executed on the upper glass panes of a door, I was spellbound. An original Gauguin! How it had escaped not being carried away by a collector, I could not understand. However, it was a good thing I came along when I did and bought it. [10]

Maugham‘s sudden reversion out of the appreciation of primitivism into a commercially savvy, entrepreneurial clarity is actually refreshing in what it reveals. For all the strange and exotic currency attributed to this island, anything worth real francs, pounds, or dollars — the real colonial benchmarks of value — exists only to be carried away expeditiously. In this regard, it is perhaps telling that a recent show of Gauguin‘s work in Papeete, which was organized around a mere four oil paintings, proved so difficult to organize; not a work of Gauguin‘s remains in Tahitian public collections.[11] Maugham was unable to resist Gauguin‘s self-promotion, both in regard to the savagery myth as well as Gauguin‘s own “achievement” in transforming himself into a “savage” man. As a self-promoter, Gauguin was relentless. Short of a year after stepping off the boat in Papeete, Gauguin saw fit to congratulate himself for having become a ―primitive man‖, although not for the last time.[12] His writings and letters were often brimming with declamations of this kind.[13] Moreover, Gauguin‘s often rowdy, bellicose prose can evoke a likable arrogance of a sort, such as when he thumbs his nose at the Papeete Catholic bishop‘s admonitions against rakishness:

His reverence is a regular goat, while I am a tough old cock and fairly well-seasoned. If I said the goat began it I should be telling the truth. To want to condemn me to a vow of chastity! That‘s a little too much; nothing like that, Lisette. [14]

Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that people like Maugham, who read his prose, desired to and did believe the things Gauguin wrote about his island home, and about himself. Indeed, Gauguin seemed to believe them, too. But is it enough to bestow Gauguin the full credit for his “savage” myth? As Solomon-Godeau questions, ―is it the historic Gauguin that so perfectly incarnates this mythology, or is it the mythology that so perfectly incarnates Gauguin? Did Gauguin produce this discourse, or did the discourse produce him? [15] In at least one noteworthy respect, Gauguin‘s myth, or rather “discourse”, possesses one characteristic that isn’t novel at all, namely the sexualization or feminization of a “savage” land and people. Consider Edward Said‘s analysis of how European thought conflated the exotic, Egypt in the following instance, with what were widely thought to be unacceptable sexual norms (i.e. those predicated on ―freedom of intercourse):

In most cases the Orient seemed to have offended sexual propriety; everything about the Orient … exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an excessive ‗freedom of intercourse‘…. But there were other sorts of threats than sex. All of them wore away the European discreteness and rationality of time, space, and personal identity. In the Orient one suddenly confronted unimaginable antiquity, inhuman beauty, boundless distance. [16]

Drawing upon Said’s analytical legacy (if not upon Said directly), as well as upon feminist criticism, Solomon-Godeau observes that Gauguin‘s artistic quest for the savage, from his stint in Brittany to his Tahitian and Marquesian periods, becomes increasingly and progressively sexualized. She takes close notice of his paintings’ characteristic elements and omissions: the linkage between the tropics and sensuality, the unchanging, static landscape populated almost entirely by superstitious women and children, the simultaneous submissiveness and availability of female body and landscape alike, the tendency toward an absence of adult men, or, where they do appear, the indistinctness, elision, or feminization of male features, and so on. The primitive and the feminine are, and have always been one and the same. That Gauguin, unlike the European subject proposed in the above passage, approves of this feminized vision of the savage is neither here nor there; he is part and parcel of an already ongoing―gendered discourse [17].

Carrying forward this conflation of the primitive with the feminine, Gauguin‘s work can be situated in the theme of colonial obsession with and control over the bodies of the colonized. Female Tahitian or Marquesian bodies are, like the land itself, characterized by their availability: ―for the taking. As Gauguin writes in Noa Noa:

I realized that this half-white girl, glossy from contact with all those Europeans, would not fulfill the aim I had set before me. I shall find them by the dozen, I said to myself. But the country is not the town. And besides, is it necessary to take them in the Maori fashion (Mau Saisis)? [18]

Availability seems not to be a reciprocal situation; it is an asymmetric relationship.The depiction of male Polynesians, as stated earlier, occurs with far less frequency, and where it does occur, the figures have a muted masculinity and are sometimes even ascribed feminine attributes. Would the rendering of a masculine or a masculine looking islander have threatened or compromised Gauguin‘s masterly mythic relationship to his paradise and its women? A passage in Noa Noa, in which he treks with a handsome young Tahitian man, allows us a momentary look inside Gauguin‘s ambivalence:

And we were only … the two of us— I had a sort of presentiment of crime, the desire for the unknown, the awakening of evil— Then weariness of the male role, having always to be strong, protective; shoulders that are a heavy load. To be for a minute the weak being who loves and obeys. [19]

But Gauguin, for all his adulation of the savage, is not the ―weak being‖; he reluctantly retains the role of colonial master. As he ruminates in and about his homosexual desires, Gauguin‘s words deny, or erase, the youth‘s masculinity: ―his lithe animal body had graceful contours, he walked in front of me sexless and immediately thereafter ―the hermaphrodite had vanished.‖

The sexualized dimensions of the asymmetric, unreciprocal colonial relationship took root early in the history of European Polynesian contact. Bougainville‘s Voyage autour du monde, for instance, demarcated Tahiti (and notably its female inhabitants) as a paradisiacal destination in the mind of the French male. Bougainville represents merely a single example. As Said and other postcolonial critics that followed him have shown, by Gauguin‘s time, European society had come to occupy itself widely, and as part of a semi-conscious project (one could call it an ―industry‖), with the exhaustive study of non European states, cultures, peoples and races. While the peoples of Polynesia, classifiable neither as―black,‖ nor ―yellow,‖ nor ―red,‖ confounded some of the more systematic European racial theorists, on the whole traditional Polynesian societies were easily incorporated into this Orientalist‘ framework, through which Europeans came to know,‘ and thus, to dominate, the peoples of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Australia.

Considering his personal poverty (his perennial, insistent complaint in that regard practically necessitates that we do) it is easy to forget that Gauguin retained certain benefits and privileges arising out of French (male) origin and citizenship. If ever he deemed a haunt too civilized, he needed simply to pack his trunks and move further afield to Brittany, to Papeete, to Mataiea, some fifty miles into the Tahitian hinterland and, at length, to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. Other destinations, which he considered but then discarded, such as Madagascar and Tonkin, were also French colonial possessions. The expansiveness of the French colonial empire virtually ensured that his passage to each new paradise had been preceded, many decades prior in some cases, by frigates flying the tricolor at the maintop. Here, again, was colonial availability (without reciprocity for the island locals). The continual presence of familiar French colonial citizens and officials, fashions, language, currency (if not enough of it), regulations and commercial products, even as they eventually came too much to resemble civilization, nevertheless remained a conspicuously steady safeguard in the artist‘s life.

Gauguin was not alone in enjoying such safeguards of colonial familiarity. Within the ideological framework of reluctant imperials and available noble savages, the European empires (but especially France and Britain, whose empires extended the farthest) actively and aggressively showcased the cultures and sometimes the inhabitants themselves as their colonial possessions, and promoted them as destinations for scholars, missionaries, settlers, journalists, artists, business people and tourists (in some cases for, or concert with, the purpose and promise of sex tourism dalliance). The educational premise of London‘s 1851 Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace was that ―European society itself was a progressive advance over ruder, more savage cultures that must represent earlier stages in the forward drive toward higher civilization [20]. The 1889 Exhibition Universelle in Paris featured a life-size Village Javanais, and was ―composed of native habitations, imported native inhabitants and tribal objects [21]. Unlike in Britain, where such shows were required to be funded privately (or by government, but through indirect channels), in France (as in America, where they became popular only in the early 1900s) ethnic exhibitions of this kind were often directly funded by the state [22].

Taken together with the many other media available to French citizens of the late 1800s, including popular and scholarly books, newspapers, magazines, art, and so forth, it is not difficult to imagine how such productions created a language of exoticism, which informed Gauguin’s efforts and was implicitly understood by both he and the art viewing public alike. Even as most everything traditional about Tahitian society was either dying or at an advanced stage in the process of radical transformation, the European idea of Tahiti as an earthly paradise exhibited a longevity perhaps unsurprising considering the enormous cultural, academic and commercial enterprises and apparatus that promoted it as such.

The persistence of today’s blockbuster Gauguin exhibitions, which undercritically celebrate his pursuit of the “exotic” and the “savage”, may suggest that this language of exoticism is actually received by ourselves in an implicit form, with little effort. That which informed Gauguin’s pursuit of his exotic fantasies, “savage” art and the earthly paradise, is similar to if not exactly the same as that which underpins our eagerness to embrace those fantasies. Notwithstanding the efforts of the postcolonialists, in our coded preconceptions about much of the world we live in, we remain much like Maugham and indeed like Gauguin himself, not seduced by the exotic, but using the exotic to seduce ourselves. Insofar as Gauguin was a “savage”, so are we.

1. Paul Gauguin, The Writings of a Savage, Trans. Eleanor Levieux. Ed. Daniel Guérin. (New York: Viking, 1978), p. 75.
2. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ―Going Native,‖ Art in America 77:7 (July, 1989), p. 125.
3. Ibid., p. 125.
4. Solomon-Godeau, p. 119.
5. Martin Bailey, ―Gauguin in Tahiti,‖ Apollo 159:507 (May, 2004), p. 77.
6. Colta Ives and Susan Alyson Stein, The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and New Haven: Yale, 2002), p. 161. In the context of widespread reticence among collectors owing to Gauguin‘s sexual themes, widely perceived to be immoral, critic Henry McBride, an admirer of the artist, noted that Maugham‘s novel made ―the villainy if not the art comprehensible.‖
7. Wilmon Menard, ―An Author in Search of an Artist,‖ Apollo 114:234 (August, 1981), p. 114.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid., p. 114-15.
10. Ibid., p. 115.
11. Bailey, p. 76.
12. Arthur C. Danto, ―Tahitian Daze,‖ ARTnews 87:6 (1988), p. 128.
13. See Gauguin, Writings, 185, for one example, wherein he begs of art critic André Fontainas ―the indulgence I need for my madness and my savage nature‖; and Gauguin, Noa Noa: Voyage to Tahiti, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Reynal and Company, [n.d.]), p.14 for another: ―Well and truly destroyed indeed, all the old remnant of civilized man in me. I returned at peace, feeling myself thenceforward a different man, a Maori.‖ Many more examples abound.
14. Paul Gauguin, The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin (London: Routledge & Kegan paul, 1985), p. 39.
15. Solomon-Godeau, p. 120.
16. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 167.
17. Solomon-Godeau, p. 123 and passim.
18. Gauguin, Noa Noa, p. 7.
19. Ibid., p. 14.
20. Danto, p. 128.
21. Solomon-Godeau, p. 125.
22. Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven and London: Yale, 1994), p. 187.