All you Gauguin enthusiasts will know that he often signed his works ‘P GO’. Sometime last year, when we were throwing around ideas about merchandising during the exhibition, someone came up with the lovely idea of commissioning a children’s book, featuring Gauguin’s animals, birds and etc, with the title ‘P GO’. No doubt it conjured up images of cute little penguins or the like. Until, that is, it was pointed out that the ‘name’ probably derived from nautical slang for penis. With someone as mischievous as Gauguin, you need to be on your guard. But where did he pick up such references? Most likely during his six years as a merchant seaman (1865-71) - not a career for the faint hearted, I imagine.

Oceanien boat

Gauguin left Marseilles on this boat – the Océanien – on 1st April 1891, bound for Tahiti

Courtesy Vincent Gille

Apparently people who met Gauguin would comment on how life on the ocean waves affected his speech, posture and dress, no doubt played-up by P GO himself, who thought it added to his ‘man of the world’ persona. Thinking about it, Gauguin must have spent quite a lot of his life on board ships, from his childhood journeys to and from Peru, then long voyages with the merchant navy, and later as an artist, to Panama, Martinique, Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands. Funny how all those months at sea made so little impact on his work. But nautical references do pop up every now and again…if you look hard enough, that is…