Gauguin's Grave

Paul Gauguin’s great granddaughter, Rosalie Tipaehaehae isn’t sitting half-naked, framed by a violet sea or sky, as though in one of her infamous ancestor’s paintings. Down by Atuona Harbour on Hiva Oa Island, she is sitting, in jeans and t-shirt, chatting with her friends on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Rosalie, in her mid-twenties, laughs when I ask if she paints? No way, she says – Grandpa Gauguin’s an impossible act to follow. And around here, the Marquesas Islands, not one that you’d really want to. In 1901, Rosalie’s great-grandmother, Marie-Rose Vaeoho, was just 14 when, to the horror of the colonial missionaries, she took up with the recently-arrived 53-year old French painter and later gave birth to his daughter.

Eleven decades after his death, in 1903, we still picture Polynesia through Gauguin’s eyes. He had travelled here to feed Europe’s hunger for “primitive” subject matter in art and to find paradise on earth. Volcanic, cloud-crowned Hiva Oa was as close as he would get.

Gauguin museum

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. His life was to become the template – or trope – of the Romantic artist: chasing love and inspiration in all the wrong places, and instead finding exile and dissipation. Throw in what used to be known as social diseases, plus more than social drinking, and you might have a portrait of the artist as a loser.

After a childhood spent partly in Peru, Gauguin became a Paris stockbroker in 1872, but success in the city and complacency in the suburbs were not to be his fate. A self-taught painter, he quit the stock market in 1882 and, obsessed with art, left his wife and five children in 1885.

In Brittany, he worked briefly with Vincent van Gogh. The end of their volatile friendship was the precursor to Van Gogh’s infamous “ear incident.” By 1890, Gauguin’s work was out of favour with Paris. “Gauguin was like a cornered dog,” notes Nancy Mowll Mathews, author of a critical biography, Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life. “He was harrying friends for cash and desperately proposing one new money-making scheme after another.”

Gauguin Tahiti dancer 5

Inspiration came from an unexpected quarter. “Her eyes were of a tawny black, full of exotic languor and coaxing softness,” novelist Pierre Loti had written of Rarahu, a Tahitian beauty who had entranced him in 1872. His hugely popular tale about their love affair, Le Mariage de Loti, was lush with exotic romance and fanned Europe’s passion for “the primitive”. Among its readers was Gauguin. He decided to travel to Tahiti, proclaiming, “It is necessary for me to steep myself in virgin nature, to see no one but savages.” Thus began his self-mythologising as an aesthetic castaway, a Robinson Crusoe of the libido.

On the inauspicious date of April Fools Day, 1891, Gauguin – of dark, bohemian appearance, sporting long hair and a cape – embarked from Marseille. Arriving in Papeete just after his 43rd birthday, he prepared to meet King Pomare V, hoping for royal patronage. Instead, the king, a terminal alcoholic, dropped dead. With his funds soon running out, Gauguin agreed to accept portrait commissions. His first subject was a sturdy, middle-aged matron whom he rendered with striking fidelity, including her scarlet nose, ensuring that his first commission was also his last.

Anyhow, Papeete, he declared, was already too bourgeois. He decamped to the coastal village of Mataiea, eventually setting up house with Teha’amana, a 14-year old vahine (by Polynesian standards of the time, a mature woman). Her face, he said, “shone like gold, tinging everything with its lustre”. They lived in relative contentment from 1891 to 1893, during which Gauguin produced 66 major works. In them, he celebrated Tahiti as an untrammelled realm of handsome, brooding figures, most notably women, amid vivid landscapes.

The subtext, however, of his “painter in paradise” existence was poor health and exhausted finances. After two years, he returned to Paris. What was to be a triumphant exhibition of his paintings ended as a debacle. His use of broad areas of bold colour, his Tahitian subjects – almost hypnotically strong figures – and his idiosyncratic, flat compositions outran critics and buyers alike. The proceeds of the exhibition barely covered expenses. In 1895 he embarked again for Tahiti in what one writer called “a spirit of doomed renunciation”.

Gauguin Tahiti dance 1

“It’s not such a bad life at present. Every night frenzied young girls invade my bed.” Gauguin persisted in mythologising himself and Polynesia. In fact, as Tahitian writer Loana Sanford notes, “it is unlikely that, with one leg infected and purulent, he would have had that much success with [women], particularly as Tahitians attach great importance to personal hygiene.”

His life on Tahiti resumed its cycle of financial insecurity, intense painting, a new teenage wife, illness and diatribes against French colonial ways. “Gauguin seems to have fallen for the myth of Tahiti he created,” says author Mathews. “He returned expecting the erotic idyll that was only ever a figment of his imagination. Of course, he didn’t find it and the disappointment was profound”.

In 1898, he painted a huge, fresco-like masterpiece (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) intended to be his terminal philosophical summation, D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?). Suicide by arsenic was to follow but, even this, he botched by ingesting so much poison that he vomited it all back up.

In 1901, art dealer Ambroise Vollard made Gauguin the unexpected offer of a guaranteed monthly income. “Life is merely a fraction of a second. An infinitely small amount of time to fulfil our desires, our dreams, our passions,” Gauguin had written. Perhaps sensing that not much time remained to him if he wished to fulfil his dream of finding a Polynesian Elysium, he abandoned yet another wife and child on Tahiti, and sailed for the distant, verdant Marquesas Islands.

To ingratiate himself with the all-important missionary authorities on Hiva Oa, Gauguin attended mass for 11 days in a row. Having thus convinced the local bishop of his piety, he was permitted to purchase land in the little village of Atuona. He then constructed a large studio-home, gave it the scandalous title “Masion du Jouir” (House of Pleasure), took a new teenage mistress, invited the locals in to roister – and never darkened the church doorway again. As he further refined and simplified his Post-Impressionist imagery over his last 19 months of life, the rest of his affairs, in contrast, descended into chaos.

Gauguin Tahiti male dancer

Some versions of him in the Marquesas have him too ill to paint; others have him too ill to do anything but paint. Either way, Gauguin could barely walk due to his ulcerated legs and so he travelled by horse-drawn buggy. Having provoked the ire of Atuona’s gendarmes whom he had libellously accused of bribery, he was summoned for driving at night without lights — supposedly endangering other traffic. His buggy, as the gendarmes failed to point out, was the only wheeled vehicle in the Marquesas.

Morphine, laudanum, absinth, syphilis, ulcers. The contributors to Gauguin’s final decline are numerous. He retreated to his House of Pleasure and, on 8 May 1903, expired miserably. Officially, he died of a heart attack but quite possibly he ended his life with morphine. The bureaucrat who finalised his estate wrote that, “The few pictures left by the late painter who belonged to the decadent school have little prospect of finding purchasers”.

The Marquesas archipelago today is still a place of primal beauty, where the mountains plunge almost vertically to the sea, with their buttressed flanks like the folds of an emerald curtain. At the foot of their cathedral peaks are tiny villages tucked into a narrow coastal plain. Other than a few French bureaucrats and gendarmes, the faces here seem to have stepped from a Gauguin canvas.

Not far from where I meet his great granddaughter, the artist who almost single-handedly invented our idea of Tahiti, lies buried in a boulder tomb. Marked simply, “Paul Gauguin 1903”, the grave is the main visitor attraction in little Atuona, if not the entire Marquesas. With frangipani and rosewood trees shading him, it is as tranquil a place as any on earth to spend a century or an eternity.

Gauguin's girls 2

©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.


San Francisco 1

Without a lot of hair to wear flowers in all these years on from the Summer of Love, I went to San Francisco ready to acknowledge if not actually obey. Scott McKenzie’s old hit stayed in my head for days, though it had to compete with a score of other songs celebrating the city by the Bay. In a corner room of the venerable Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, as the sun set on an eventful day poking around Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore District, the Presidio, Pacific Heights, Chinatown and bits of the Tenderloin, I took a line of sight down the tram line to Union Square on one side of me and down and away toward Fisherman’s Wharf on the other, all the time being gently visited by Eric Burdon’s words: Old child, young child feel alright / on a warm San Franciscan night.

The previous week, I’d bounced about Las Vegas to Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas and around the South Side of Chicago to any number of blues standards but that which drove me up and down the streets and around the watery environs of San Francisco – perhaps the most engaging of all American cities – were the songs that had been planted in my (then hirsute) cranium when it was a byword for the stretching of all known envelopes.

Venturing back after a long absence and fearing that its brashness might have been diluted, I had hit the streets running (and walking and perambulating), seeking out the cultural touchstones that have been making visitors feel alright since the Animals leader had made the city his home toward the end of the sixties. They were in place largely as I’d left them along with the array of charismatic characters and assertive attitudes that render the Northern California metropolis quite irresistible.

San Francisco 3

As with New York, there are songs that celebrate the city from the canons of all known music forms, and have been almost since it began life in 1776 when the great Franciscan missionary to California, Fray Junipero Serra, built the Mission Dolores, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, on a site just a little south of the present City Hall. From the time in July 1846, when Capt. John B. Montgomery of the U.S.S. Portsmouth took possession of the tiny hamlet of trappers and whalers in the name of the people of the United States, it has been an integral part of the history of America’s western seaboard and a muse and lure for the creatively inclined.

Now pretty much every American city or state has an official song, often cemented on statute books by legislature confirmation. Georgia’s, not surprisingly is Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia by Ray Charles. But the Bay City has two, crooner Tony Bennett’s signature tune I Left My Heart In San Francisco coming first to mind. However, in 1984, the city adopted a second . This induction harkened back to the 1936 MGM disaster musical, San Francisco. Clark Gable, as Blackie Norton, “made with the sweet talk” to Jeanette MacDonald, as Mary Blake, in the Barbary Coast’s mythical Paradise Saloon.

During the movie’s 1936 premiere, some of the survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire became ill during the extraordinary earthquake sequence and left the theatre. Folks are made of sterner stuff these days and the film is shown without incident each April 18th at the Castro Theatre to mark the disaster – the earthquake that is, not the disorientated cinema patrons. And, when a plucky Jeanette stands amongst the rubble and intones San Francisco open your golden gates!, all present lustily sing along. (As they did at Judy Garland concerts when she so memorably rendered it around the end of the fifties).

San Francisco 29. The world's most famous intersection_

Like nearby Seattle, San Francisco has a wild, rambunctious past linked to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s and perhaps that accounts for its unshakeable sense of self-identity. No American city looks like it and certainly none feels like it. It has the sort of physical appeal that travel guides like to call quaint. To quote one published decades past by Frommers: “Luxurious mansions jostling little pastel-coloured cottages on steep hillsides, old cable cars struggling up or hurtling down the precipitous streets, the cutting edge of the Transamerica Pyramid towering over the exotic pagodas of Chinatown, one of the largest Far Eastern communities outside of Asia, the huge flamboyant silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge framed against the Pacific, the splendid backdrop of San Francisco Bay with the dark island of Alcatraz anchored amid its icy blue waves, especially at sunset – all the details of an amazing urban composition.”

This urban composition is imprinted upon us whether we realise it not – making a visit, first or repeat, an exercise in overt and subliminal recognition. It has been the setting for more memorable movies than can be recounted, including Dark Passage and Pacific Heights on Pacific Heights, The Graduate in Berkeley, Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai by Sausalito’s docks, various Indiana Jones scenes around Marin County, the car chase classic Bullitt up and down those hills (where residents still put bricks behind their rear wheels when parking near vertically), Hitchcock’s Vertigo all over the place, the cop classic Dirty Harry, Mrs Doubtfire, and The Birdman of Alcatraz, which immortalised the formidable prison on the island in the bay. That prison and that island was taken over by Native Americans in 1969 in one of the most successful protest actions of the 20th century.

San Francisco knew all about protest in sixties – it was its stock in trade. The campus of the University of California, Berkeley, rivalled the Sorbonne in Paris as the ultimate hotbed of discontent and crucible of revolution. Today, it looks rather less of a threat to the established order; its students plainly more interested in acquiring knowledge that will lead to six figure salaries than perpetuating the Free Speech movement or reviving the Symbionese Liberation Army.

San Francisco 2

Of course, the allure wasn’t all based in protest and the search for a new way. After WWII, it was one of the cities that absorbed a population movement from the south. San Francisco was a long way from the Delta, and it didn’t boast the studios and record companies of Chicago, New York or Detroit, or even Los Angeles, but it had a free and easy tone to it that connected with a lot of black bluesmen. And it was a long way from home, which had its own allure.

John Lee Hooker dropped by around 1962 and, though the song that came from his visit was titled ‘Frisco Blues, the sentiment was anything but a lament – more a paean of praise. Later the masterful Otis Redding told us how he left his home in Georgia headed for the Frisco Bay in (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay.

By the time Otis Redding had headed for the Frisco Bay, it was the end point of the western world’s most heavily trodden pilgrimage trail, particularly for the young. As London had been since the explosion of the Beatles and their fellow beat merchants in 1963, San Francisco was the hippest, hottest most evocative city in the world and the people that mattered were flooding in – to look, to live, to luxuriate in its atmosphere. Swinging London and grooving San Francisco. The very names were enough to send shivers through the culturally deprived residents of the remainder of the world’s burgs.

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It was a city open to all manner of styles and influences while being beholden to none in particular. That is probably why four kids from the Bay Area were able to call themselves Creedence Clearwater Revival and convince the world that they were bona fide sons of the south. It was very likely why it was able to make available a relatively blank canvas to the sudden surge of psychedelic acts, some of whom – like Janis Joplin – came from as far afield as Texas.

The freaks of San Francisco were on their own plane of consciousness at the Matrix Club, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore Auditorium or Family Dogg, listening to the birth of free-form FM radio and experiencing the unbelievable light shows that accompanied performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, It’s A Beautiful Day, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Country Joe & the Fish, Moby Grape and so many others. San Francisco became a magnet for those who sought a truly alternative lifestyle and, for a relatively short time, before buses began ferrying in gawking tourists to the Haight-Ashbury area, it really was a brave new world.

All those hippies, heads and wanderers – the tens of thousands of actually middle-class youths who settled – had to take up residence somewhere and, with the Victorian houses around Haight-Ashbury taken up by bands and Berkeley by militant students, Sausalito, under the Golden Gate Bridge, housed a thriving community. Then, in the early seventies, gay men began purchasing cheap houses in Eureka Valley, giving birth to The Castro district (bordered by the Mission District, Twin Peaks, Duboce Triangle and Dolores Heights), which is now a thriving centre of restaurants, nightlife, specialty shopping and accommodation, with a village atmosphere. Nearby Mount Davidson, is the highest in the city, at 938 feet. As with the Sutro Tower reached from Twin Peaks Boulevard, the sweeping views of the Bay, when not blanketed by fog, are quite spectacular.

But then so much of this city is – even its tattered cosmic grandeur. A stroll down Haight Street revealed more tattoo parlous and lingerie salons than head shops but there was an engaging piece of street theatre by a man behind the frame of a television set and there were two girls who beguilingly parted me from a few dollars by way of an acrobatic live rat. At the end, by the Golden Gate Park, where tear gas once broke up riots and more than a few rampant young protesters procreated productively beneath the bushes, there is a vast and cavernous Amoeba Records store that is worth a day of your stay.

Not that one needs to go looking for music; it is with you every moment you’re in the city by the bay. The songs keep coming at you – whatever your taste or your generation – a constant celebration in song. Let’s Go To San Francisco by the Flower Pot Men, We Built This City by Starship, Lights by Journey, San Francisco (You’ve Got Me) by the Village People, San Francisco Days by Chris Isaak, San Francisco by Vanessa Carlton and San Francisco Bay Blues by … well, just about everybody (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton included). More than your head may be able to handle.

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.