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