Gauguin in his element

Our trip to French Polynesia has brought me back to a preoccupation of my twenties. I was fascinated with the artist Paul Gauguin. While on a trip to Europe with my college choir, I began reading Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” a novel that is based loosely on the life of Gauguin. That book formed a backdrop for the trip through France, and when our group visited the Musée d’Orsay, I made a beeline for the Gauguin collection, even sneaking a quick snapshot or two, until I was told to stop by a guard. The trip continued to
Germany and about a dozen other countries, but the travels did not get anywhere near French Polynesia. 
Now this visit has completed the circle and reawakened my interest. Looking back on the period, I am quite a different person than I was then. As a young person, becoming an artist was a far-off dream. Now I simply view it as a choice to make the necessary sacrifices and work hard to develop your artistry. Then, put it out there.
 
The story left a picture in my mind of Gauguin — encouraged largely by Maugham’s book — of a successful businessman who decided one day to abandon his family, travel to Tahiti and become a painter. The truth is not as romantic, but just as interesting. While a stock broker in Paris, Gauguin also worked as an art dealer, and did his own paintings as well, becoming a protégé of Camille Pisarro. He was very much intrigued with painting scenes and people from the countryside, and some of his earlier work includes paintings of Bretons going about their business, as well as scenes from a trip to Martinique. The Tahitian women came later.
 
Through the promotion of an art dealer friend of his, Gauguin’s work gradually gained in popularity, and eventually he was able to fund a trip to Tahiti, where he became involved in local affairs there, and found himself a Tahitian wife. This is the part that most closely resembles the myth, for he was still married to his wife back in Paris. Contrary to the myth of his abruptly abandoning the family, their relationship was fraught for a long time, and in fact Mette, his wife, asked him to leave because he had abandoned their values.  A biography of Gauguin,  Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life, paints a more explicit picture: Letters and other documents reveal that he was in fact a brutal man who physically abused Mette.  It seems she had good reason to send him away.
 
Later he became friends with Vincent Van Gogh, and their friendship lasted for many years. There were signs of Van Gogh’s impending troubles with insanity; in 1888 Van Gogh confronted his friend with a razor, after which Gauguin decided to move out of the flat they were sharing. In 1890 Van Gogh sliced off his left ear and handed it to a prostitute they both knew, with a note saying “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.” Both men employed this particular lady.
While in Tahiti, his output of paintings, pastels, and wood carvings increased, but he had only moderate success selling the works back in Paris.  A contentious sort of fellow, he quarreled with local officials controlling Tahiti, generally expressing disapproval of the Colonial government, although he did not particularly support local causes on behalf of the native population.
 Among his projects was a travelogue, “Noa Noa,” in which he reveals that he took a thirteen-year-old girl, Teha’amana, as his wife, who was featured in several of his paintings.  Whatever you might think of his choosing such a young girl, it should be noted here that he was still married to his wife, Mette, at the time, although they were estranged.
 Although I am fairly certain that I would not want to have met Gauguin, based on the more unsavory details of his life, I think that, looking around us here on Bora Bora, he accurately captured the essence of the local people and life here.  The faces, the skin, but also the attitude is all there. Paradise is a state of mind as much as it is a place.
Woman with a Flower

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