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Tate Modern’s major Gauguin exhibition will transport visitors to the South Seas, but how close to life were his paintings? Closer than we imagine

Condé Nast Traveller, October 2010


I was sitting on a beach just outside Papeete around sunset, gazing at the crags of the island of Moorea across the water. It was an indefinite moment, full of the heat of the day, and then night coming down fast and the uncertainty of evening with it. But as I watched the sun disappear and ignite the sky behind Moorea’s peaks, I thought with absolute certainty, I’ve seen this view before.

It was a painting by Gauguin, as precise as a photograph in its reminder of the scene. The painting was called Te Vaa (The Canoe). It was painted in 1896 and probably inspired by a painting by Puvis de Chavannes called The Poor Fisherman. It shows a Polynesian family resting next to the sea, the high island of Moorea in the distance. The mother is drinking languidly from a coconut shell, and the father, with a touch of depression about his slack shoulders, is about to do the same. Their baby boy plays naked and disregarded next to their canoe.

It’s a picture that asks questions. Has the fisherman’s catch failed? Does the family have anything to sustain them, besides coconut milk? Why does disappointment hover over the scene? And there’s something acutely human and moving about the fisherman too, on his knees on the sand, as though praying. But it’s also a picture that, when I started thinking about it, began to give me an answer to something about Gauguin’s painting that had puzzled me.

A couple of days later I had another experience that added to the sense of solving a mystery. I’d crossed the Sea of the Moon from Tahiti to Moorea by ferry. Moorea is interesting. Separated by an hour’s ride from the uninspired orgy of concrete that is modern Papeete, it remains more like the Tahiti that Gauguin looked for 120 years ago. The island is calmer and wilder, and Mooreans are serener and more handsome than Tahitians (who can be seriously overweight, and spoilt and sulky). I wanted to get away from the coast, and I found a taxi and drove to the belvedere just below the peak of Mt Tohivea, up a mountain road bordered by pineapple plantations and forest, to a plateau where the entire north coast is revealed, torn crags that rocket up from the sea, webbed fantastically in jungle to their peaks.

Suddenly, a few feet from where we’d stopped, a girl of about eighteen or nineteen appeared, standing motionless in front of the view. She was one of those beauties the artist had worshipped – and I knew the painting she had appeared in too, or at least one of them. She was the vahine stretched out brooding on her bed in the picture Manao Tupapau (The Soul of the Dead Ones Is Awake); on her face was a remote, immobile mask of melancholy so close to the expression Gauguin had painted that the resemblance was shocking. Her features unreadable, her eyes alive but unlooking, she stood as if she was listening to an interior voice, “the fragrance of a bygone joy” in Gauguin’s phrase, or a spirit murmuring. As if she was the perfect reincarnation of Gauguin’s great trio of existential questions, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

•     •     •

All his life Paul Gauguin was mad for art. Before he became a proper painter he was a Sunday painter, lugging easel and paintboxes to riverbanks outside Paris every weekend, and before that, as a child growing up in Lima in his great-uncle’s colonial palace, he spent his days bathed in a delicious climate and freedom that left him with a insatiable hunger for slabs of colour and primitive imagery. When he arrived in Paris, he turned into an excellent stockbroker, and spent his profits on… pictures. By 1876, at the age of twenty-eight, he owned paintings by Manet, Renoir, Sisley and Cézanne. He thought Monet was rubbish, and, like Cézanne, had already understood that Impressionism was dead, a fruitless, over-clever game.

You might assume that with such unbridled certainty this headstrong young man had everything to make a career as an artist. But when Gauguin leapt at the chance to resign from his job in the French bank collapse of 1882, he took the right decision for his art but the wrong one for his finances, family and health. The next nine years, until he left for Tahiti in 1891, are like a slow-motion pile-up. Simultaneously, he sought his own way of painting, trying to rediscover a simplicity and primitivism he hardly knew he was looking for, at Arles and Pont-Aven and as far away as Martinique and Panama (where he ended up digging the Canal), and failed again and again to find buyers, recognition or income.

But art anticipates life. It tells us what we’ll be looking for, what we’ll be feeling in 20, 50, 100 years’ time. When Gauguin’s portrait of another reclining nude, Nevermore, “O Tahiti”, was voted the painting that best captured the idea of romance in a British poll earlier this year, the verdict expressed very modern feelings of desire and yearning. Yet in 1897, the year he painted Nevermore, he had syphilis, was registered as a pauper at the local hospital, and at Punaauia where he lived, near the beach where I had sat, the vahines (young Polynesian women) who had slept with him and looked out for him now avoided him, thinking him plague-ridden. “Nothing comes for me, it’s driving me mad,” he wrote. His life was, and still is, a monster of misunderstandings: the world misunderstanding him, he misunderstanding the world. He wasn’t so much an artist as an artist-catastrophe. In that huge failure his genius flourished.

There is another misunderstanding too, I think, one that is worth thinking about if you visit the major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern this autumn. Gauguin, forever associated with Tahiti, gave us what we think of as a primitivist’s view of French Polynesia, idealised and refashioned, pared-down, distilled, pulsing with heat and nature and sensuality. His paintings are, we take it, little allegories of love and yearning and mortality (and boredom), exaggerated and simplified to achieve a disturbing intensity, their subtleties ironed out by those rich blocks of colour and planes superimposed on each other. It’s an intensity further dramatised by the flat masklike faces he painted of (mainly) Polynesian women, their eyes mostly closed and features washed of emotion, their message one of troubling mystery – as if, although utterly immobile, they are pregnant with movement and may at any moment break the spell.

In fact, everybody thinks like this about Gauguin. Everybody says the same, including the experts. An explanatory text by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, chosen at random, that talks of “his use of bright, flat, and unrealistic colours and his interest in recovering a ‘pure’ subject, closer to nature”, is highly representative of this view.

Yet that little discussed painting of the hard-up Polynesian family by their canoe offers a clue to an entirely different way of looking at his paintings – as does the face of the young woman I saw on Moorea. Afterwards, on Raiatea and Bora Bora, I saw that mysterious expression with its mixture of beauty, concealment and spirituality half a dozen times more, and thought that perhaps, among the elements of a man-made paradise – man-made even in Gauguin’s day by French colonial rule – the strangeness of that look, like a beautiful ghost, is the last great secret of its attraction.

It isn’t just views or faces that are real in Gauguin’s paintings, either. There is also the south Pacific light and heat, and what they do to colours and to people. Of course there are differences between what a photograph would record and what Gauguin painted. Yellow became the favourite colour on his palette, especially in the early Polynesian years, joyous and radiant and unreal in pictures like Parahi te marae (There Is The Temple) (1892) and Tahitian Landscape (1893), and as a colourist preoccupied by composition and myth he made pictures that are full of enigmatic, totemic, oddly placed insertions of tikis, ravens and spirits.

But the light he painted is peculiarly, intensely real. On a Pacific morning before the sun climbs high enough to begin bleaching out the day’s colour, the hot, sharp clarity of the plants, stones and trees around you is so clear, it’s supernatural. Crotons, tamanu trees, poinsettias will gleam as if you’d lacquered them and taken them from a car showroom. A fern’s fronds will stand out like spear tips. You also experience an uncanny differentiation between closer and more distant objects. Step to the left or the right, and you can practically hear the planes of your vision shifting. Such visual acuities fill Gauguin’s compositions, and fit hand in glove with his desire to bring a pristine, barbaric luxury into his pictures.

All this – light, heat, geography – does things to people too, if you come as far as Polynesia. It may have started with the Polynesians themselves, superb navigators, arriving here 2000 years ago and realising that they would go no further. It was a feeling Gauguin identified in perhaps his greatest painting, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897), made six years before he died at the age of 54, when he realised that he had not encountered success at any turn of the long road and would also go no further. A sort of end-of-the-road feeling, in which all there is to do is to stay in one place, immobile, and enjoy it if you can.

The truth is that while Gauguin may have ignored reality in his own life, he never did in his paintings. The year before he set sail for Tahiti, in 1889, he discovered what he was looking for. “The future belongs to painters of the tropics that have not yet been painted,” he told a friend. The reality of his South Sea paintings is that they are nowhere near as stylised as you think they are before you arrive in Polynesia. And what is fascinating in turn is that because in many ways his pictures are the most realistic, and beautiful, enigmatic, unanswerable, luxuriant, troubling, moving depiction of that tropic that you’re ever likely to come across, he revealed it as far stranger than you can imagine.

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