Gauguin landed in Tahiti for the first time on 9 June 1891 at the port of Papeete, now the capital of French Polynesia. You wont be surprised to hear that his appearance, especially his long hair, caused quite a stir, earning him the nickname ‘Taata-vahine’ or ‘man-woman’. The name Papeete comes from the Tahitian for ‘waterbasket’ and was once a gathering place where people came to fill their calabashes with fresh water. By the time Gauguin arrived, however, Papeete was a colonial settlement (Tahiti had been proclaimed a protectorate and then a colony of France) with an established infrastructure, including electricity. Gauguin soon realised that the ancient culture he had sailed for months to experience and explore, had been cleared away…literally: even the sacred icons from the Tahitian landscape. To say he was disappointed would be an understatement. In ‘Noa Noa’ (first published in 1897), Gauguin described the funeral of King Pomare V (1842-1891), an event he had witnessed within days of arriving in Tahiti and which had struck him as a deeply symbolic moment. It was, after all, King Pomare who had been forced to cede sovereignty to the French in 1880. ‘There was one king less,’ Gauguin writes, ‘and with him disappeared the last remains of Maori customs. It was well and truly over, nothing left but civilised people. I was sad: to have come so far for…’ At least initially Gauguin decided to settle in Papeete and make a living as a portrait painter for the colonial community (he even cut his hair and invested in a linen suit to look more respectable). But the loss of the old world and Tahiti’s subsequent corruption, as he saw it, by European civilisation proved too much for him, and he left Papeete in September for the remoter Mataiea. ‘Would I succeed in finding a trace of that so distant and so mysterious past?’ he wrote, ‘And the present had nothing worthwhile to say to me. Finding the old hearth, reviving the fire in the midst of all these ashes. And doing this all alone, without any support.’
So was Gauguin’s aim to revive or restore this lost world and ancient culture? And does his disappointment explain the melancholic atmosphere that seems to inhabit many of his Tahitian works of art? What do you think?