As one of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings hits the headlines we take a closer look at this particular period in the artist’s life.
When Paul Gauguin first went to Tahiti in 1891 he imagined the island to be a primitive paradise. He wanted "to live there in ecstasy, calm and art". His financial difficulties and his aesthetic concerns drove him to escape "the European struggle for money" and to be "free at last".
However the reality of Gauguin's trip was not exactly what he expected. Papeete -the Tahitian capital- was not the tropical paradise he hoped for, the exotic and mysterious town found by great travellers like the legendary Captain Cook. Gauguin soon realized that such paradise had been killed after many years of civilian, military and religious colonization. However in towns far enough from the capital, there still persisted a small part of the primitive culture Gauguin was searching for. Gauguin also became the perpetuator of this myth of the primitive paradise with the book he published about his time in Tahiti, and the paintings he produced.
Gauguin's Tahitian pictures are a hybrid of various Western and Eastern sources that creates a new synthetic style combining decorative abstract patterning with figuration. They combine the synthetic lines and simplified shapes of Manet, whom Gauguin admired greatly, and coloured effects of Matisse with their powerful graphic style and vivid colours. Paintings during the early part of Gauguin’s first stay in the Pacific often depicting Tahitian women busy with simple daily tasks, but he soon moved on to more sexualised and religious imagery.
Back in Tahiti he set up house with Pahura, another fourteen year old who served as a model for several paintings. He worked on his book, before starting his monumental canvas, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going?. After this piece Gauguin’s work became increasingly self-referential; he drew and painted the same figures over and over again, cutting and pasting them in different configurations and settings. For example the figures in the work ‘Two Tahitian Women’ also appear in‘Rupe, Rupe’ and in ‘Faa Iheihe (Tahitian Pastoral)’.
In his final years Paul Gauguin was forced to leave Tahiti, possibly because of his conduct and the fact he was spreading syphilis from which he was dying. He moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa were he constructed his small house, " La Maison du Jouir", or his "House of sexual pleasure". He continued to paint there until his death in 1903.