Papeete Tahiti

Gauguin arrived in 1891 at the town of Papeete, the capital town of Tahiti, seen here in a period photograph.

Courtesy Vincent Gille

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.’

Gauguin Two Tahitian Women

Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women 1899

courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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? 

Comments

Melissa

Personally I feel that the paradise that Gauguin was looking for in Tahiti can be found amongst may countries that still have the cultures that haven't caught up with the 21st century. Many, that is, that still exist like in the Amazon, or the Congo, cultures that have been cut off from modern civilization. But these cultures are on the brink of disappearing like the Tahitians did because of our ideas of Manifest Destiny. So the sadness and melancholy that was in the Gauguin paintings is quite plausible. His feelings toward the disappearance of such a culture proves that not all people feel it necessary to destroy cultures lost in time. If they had been there, I feel that his paintings would have been more upbeat, using brighter colors, perhaps painting real people doing their everyday chores, or just sitting around socializing. But because the civilization was destroyed, his paintings use darker colors expressing his sadness that a people were wiped out due to the expansion and colonization of a higher power such as France. It's sad but if it never happened we would never have had the honor of viewing the art that we have today by Gauguin.

CjSuarez

Sad that he arrived to a severed culture, imagine his drawing if he actually had some "local trinkets" to inspire his creativity.

His aim seemed to be to revive, the lost culture. An outside can't restore what they never lived.

Stan Halfacre

Sell Your Home in New Hope, PA - Julie Smith, Weidel Realtors

iain

It is incredible that you can join a huge queue to look at paintings which are 110 years old, and assume they are successful just because of a marketing trick!

Gauguin's paintings contain a depth of thought and emotion which attract people. His technique may have been simpler, but this makes it more difficult to emulate, not easier. In fact his later works show how impossible it was, even for him, to capture in paint the mystical thoughts which possessed him only a few years earlier.

Part of the magic of painting is that the depth of mind of the viewer is also required, and a sense of taste; to compare Gauguin's work with the vacuous nonsense of Hirst and Emin is to confuse sushi with vomit!

Ray Newe

I've always felt a bit queezy about Gauguin, that whole noble savage/tropical paradise schtick seems wildly inappropriate in this day and age and this exhibition did little to counter that unease.

Subtitled Maker Of Myth this exhibition contented itself with explaining the mythic significance of Gauguins imagery and putting him in the context of his contemporary Parisian centred art world whilst (unforgivably, to my mind) failing to ask what business a middle class stock broker has creating Tahitian myths nor interrogating his motives in doing so (could the melancholic atmosphere you speak of not be due to the fact that these are paintings of 14 year old girls that he raped?). Surely some genuine Tahitian work should have been presented here, if only to demonstrate their was/ is more to Tahiti than the gratification of middle class westerners deviancy.

The weird thing is that,frankly, its really not aged well this Tahitian stuff,rather than the 19th century avant garde one is more put in mind of, Blue Faced Women, Les Baxter record sleeves and Bounty bar adverts!

Despite also being guilty of a kind of exoticism the Breton paintings fare rather better, in fact I quite liked their mix of Catholic imagery and "everyday" Breton women..".A Breton Girl Spinning" in particular looked great, like a cross between an alter piece and a painting found on a squat kitchen door!

Overall a missed opportunity.

Caroline

There was so much to see and think about in this exhibition we stayed for three and a half hours, much longer than planned. Some of the texts and pictures provided fascinating background. Felt a bit put out by the thematic non chronological arrangement to begin with, as I don't have any knowledge of Gauguin so it was difficult to start putting things in order in my mind - but warmed to it by the end. The timelines helped. Overall I think it is very well worth trying different approaches. Well done the Tate, I learnt a lot.

DarEll T. Weist

I found the show to be interesting. It was well organized and I commend you for the working out of the different topics. i think that you hit all the major themes and did them with good illustrations of his work. But because you were so exhaustive and honest I found Gaugin as person to be one who I have not interest in meeting. He might have been a good artist but he was not a good human being. I also was offended by his creating a mythology for the South sea island. He was really into himself.

Margaret

I went to the exhibition with two friends on Saturday and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience including the excellent luch in the 7th floor restaurant.
We rented the audio guides and were impressed with the quality of the descriptions and explanations of Gaugin's life and work.
The exhibition did not make me like Gaugin's painting but I did see some work for the first time and now have two paintings which I am beginning to appreciate and enjoy, namely Woman holding fruit, still life with idol and maybe as a fterthough Tahitian Landscape. For me it is Van Gogh that rocks my boat.

Maggie Lee

I thought the exhibition was very gripping & disturbing. It was a good experience to feel that I could be entranced by paintings but not want any of them because so many made me feel uncomfortable. However , isn't good art meant to create feelings & we don't always want sugary ones?
Aside from that - I loved his use of colour and could see the influence of Cezanne, I hope! His early pastels were a revalation too.It was well worth seeing and the iPod app was excellent. I was able to arrive well tutored and ready for the real thing. Thank you all very much.

Bindy Mellor

Finally got to the exhibition yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I really would like to know about the effects on poor old Mette and his five children. Was the art worth the suffering of his family? I also would have liked to know more about his political leanings - I assume he supported Dreyfuss etc. I like to see socio-historical context on the labels as painters/writers et all do not work in a vacuum.

Thank you though for this wonderful opportunity of seeing so much of his work. It must have taken a supreme effort to get all the museums to agree to loan Tate their works. It is a wonderful exhibition.

WIll McDonnell

A good exhibition sadly marred by the gross overcrowding. I shuffled along with so many others struggling to see past the backs of so many heads. I apprectaite the difficulties, especially with such a popular an exhibiter, but could such exhibitions be extended in time and space, bigger rooms with greater space would be useful (despite possibly seeming impractical at first thought). I'm sorry to say that, otherwise, Tate should consider limiting the numbers and maybe i don't get in but it would make it a satisfying experience for those who do. Full marks to Tate otherwise, well prepared and structured.

fedolain

After reading about this exhibition on this blog and craving for it I finally found the chance to spend two days in London (I'm from Italy) and I obviously couldn't miss it..I liked it very much, especially the new look it gives at Gauguin's works as maker of a myth and I have to say the division into rooms was definitely conveying the message properly. Also, I thought the Tate organization was perfect, we bought our ticket at 3.30 for the 5.30 entry, due to the high number of visitors (it was Sunday:) so that we didn't have to queue and we had time to visit the Tate collection and the bookshop. Plus, I love how these posts keep the thinking alive and turn the exhibition in more than just a way to spend the afternoon..

Giorgos Siakotos

Hello Tate,

I travelled from Athens, Greece to see this wonderful and complete exhibition of my favorite painter. Gauguin led an adventurous life, he loved primitive cultures and nature, that helped him simplify, in his painting, the multidimensional influences of contemporary life in France. He advanced his art towards more abstraction, a situation followed by later artists.

This exhibition is a must!

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Louise McLean

Being a Tate member made access to the exhibition really pleasant and easy. Not having to queue was wonderful.
The exhibition itself was well explained and easy to follow Gauguin's life and artistic development. I feel I must come back and look at them again. Seeing the exhibition I realised that I had not really known and understood Gauguin before. And perhaps seeing his works assembled made one feel a little uneasy about the man - his relationships with very young women - I don't think I would have liked him if I had met him.

Rodders

It was fascinating as I realised that the whole business of Gauguin's painting was a marketing exercise. As he had neither the skill nor the artistic vision of his impressionist contemporaries he had to find a way of showing his self-confessed genius to the world. So in essence, he was the forerunner of, and showed the way to, so many modern artists, as evident by much of the work in the gallery. A triumph of marketing over skill, artistry and emotion.

Lightdragoon

What was it that led him up the garden (or jungle) path, so that he thought he was going to an unspoilt paradise? Clever marketing from the shipping firms, other stories from books and magazines? He must have been fairly desparate to find a paradise if he didn't consider that it might have changed within 11 years of rule and contact from a colonial power.
Did he go partly expecting to be disappointed and with a view to reviving or reviving the lost culture? Did he expect to find some like minded people on the island who also wanted to keep the island untouched?
Thanks Christine. Keep us thinking...

Liz barnard

I came up to London on the spur of the moment so was really pleased to be able to book a slot online an hour after my train got in. BUT I queued for ten minutes at the appointed time only to discover that I should have picked up my ticket a couple of floors down at a desk I had difficulty finding. Got ticket but had to join back of queue again. And I was not the only one who made this mistake. Unless you are pretty familiar with Tate M you imagine that the ticket collection facility is going to be close to the exhibition to which your ticket relates!

Yes, the rooms were VERY crowded and I couldn't linger as I had a return train to catch so had to cherry pick what I could look at. As a result, anything with a forest of people in front of it, anything with labels low down or in small print and anything which could not be appreciated from a metre away or which required close scrutiny went by the board.

What did interest me, especially about the early work, is the resemblance to other Impressionist paintings. I spotted Cezanne still lives, Van Gogh peasants, Douanier Rousseau primitives and some pretty crap drawing! I read enough about his life to discover he was a bit of an arsehole, especially in relation to his family. Don't know how Mette put up with him. A thoroughly educational experience, this exhibition. But I'm visual not academic so a lot of the detailed supportive material went over my head - just not enough time or space to browse. In the end I had to settle for enjoying the visual impact of the most well known images with which I am familiar from reproductions.

Nick Bond

I'm not an experienced blogger or art expert just someone wanting to learn more about art and artists. I need to ask a question/make an observation about the Gaugain exhibition. There are two pictures that are somewhat similar. Firstly, there is a picture of a Tahitian female (described in the wording accompanying the picture as rather masculine) in a Tahitian landscape holding or protecting a small animal being observed by two females in the background. Secondly, there is a picture of a female Tahitian holding a large green fruit in a very similar, if not identical, landscape, in a similar pose to the one holding the small animal also being observed by two femaies in the background.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice this similarity but what does the similarity in the two pictures signify? If anything? Is this just co-incidence?

If anyone can assist with an answer I should be very interested to receive it.

Many thanks,

Nick.

EM

Sorry, I meant to post this comment on the more general views page

Gareth Griffiths

I visited the exhibition in late October before returning to Australia. I was especially interested in the material showing the tours by French shipping lines of the Pacific in the period? Does anyone connected with the exhibition or with the blog know where those posters were found and if they are available on line anywhere?

Ruth

Something completed unrelated: out of interest, does anyone happen to know approximately how many people have visited the Gaugin exhibition so far?

Carolyn

I appreciate Liz's comments about the other artists' styles revealing themselves in some of Gaugin's paintings. I agree that it can tend to get crowded because G is such a famous painter. I enjoyed seeing G hanging in the Tate Modern - he seems to be on the cusp, and so the perspective that the show gave on his life, with representative paintings throughout was very appropriate (as opposed to some of the rude and overly flamboyant comments made about chronology, not enough Tahiti, etc. - if you want to see just the paintings that are the stereo typical, then the chap who said he would stay on his sofa with a Taschen or whatever the British equivalent is should have done so and made more room for people who wanted to enjoy the show). I think that there may be other ways to exhibit art that has not yet been attempted. I would think in this day and age of innovation, we might try some new approaches, especially based on size of piece, size of room, lighting, etc.

EM

Very much enjoyed our visit to Gauguin and have been discussing the paintings,ideas,hanging, ever since...the sign of a really interesting exhibition. Thought the audio guide was excellent after my initial difficulty getting the knack of the feather-light touch needed to stop the pictures careering down the screen. Could the girls at the desk perhaps identify people like me (ie getting on)who are not very i-poddy-savvy and take an extra 20 seconds to repeat the instructions about finding and using the 'done' button.
Wasn't convinced by the commentary about the Breton Dancing Girls and would be interested to hear more. Looking at Gauguin's other paintings of children, I felt that the commentator was reading more into that particular painting than the painter perhaps intended...and is it too simplistic to think that his approach was to make a strong composition without necessarily having a more disturbing aim?