Illustrated companion

In a letter to the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who had criticised his work, Gauguin wrote: 'Civilisation is what you are suffering from; to me barbarism is a rejuvenation'. Further on he spoke of '... the Eve of my choice, which I have painted in the forms and colours of another world. This world ... will be a paradise of which I alone have made the rough draft'.

Gauguin was enough of an Impressionist to need the stimulus of some aspect of the natural world to enable him to realise in paint his vision of a primitive paradise, and his search took him initially to the most unspoilt part of France, Brittany. which he first visited in 1886. His view of Le Pouldu in Brittany. showing Breton peasants at work in the fields, is in the Tate Gallery collection [T00895]. In 1887 he went to Panama and Martinique, then, after returning to Brittany for a few years, in 1891 he went to the South Pacific Islands where he spent most of the rest of his life, largely on the island of Tahiti. 'Faa Iheihe' is a marvellous example of Gauguin's rich and decorative mature style, in which he finally and triumphantly succeeded in creating a consistent series of images of his personal paradise, peopled by 'the Eve of my choice'. 'Faa Iheihe' presents a vision of beautiful people living in harmony with each other and with both the animal and vegetable kingdoms of the Earth.

A key element in the paradise is a simple religion and the figure in the centre appears to be a goddess or priestess making a ritual gesture. Gauguin in fact derived this figure from decorations on a Javanese temple, photographs of which were found in his hut at the time of his death. The whole composition is frieze-like and decorative, and Gauguin's concern for decorative effect is also evident in the ornate panel in which he has placed the title, his signature, and the date.

The title is Tahitian and its meaning has been the subject of scholarly debate since there is apparently no word of this precise spelling in Tahitian. The view of Bengt Danielsson, now accepted, is that Gauguin mistranslated the word fa'ai'ei'e, mistaking the glottal stops for h-sounds. The meaning is To beautify, adorn, embellish in the sense of someone beautifying themselves for a special occasion.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.110