Paul Gauguin Merahi metua no Tehamana

Paul Gauguin’s Merahi metua no Tehamana 1893

courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Many of you will know that Tehamana was Gauguin’s companion or ‘vahine’ during his first stay in Tahiti (1891-3). She is the subject of a very beautiful and complex painting in Gallery 10 of the Gauguin exhibition called Merahi Metua no Tehamana or Tehamana has Many Parents. Well, that’s one translation. The other is ‘The Ancestors of Tehamana’, which puts a very different spin on the potential meaning of the painting! On the one hand, ‘parents’ alludes to the Tahitian practice of children being brought up by adults other than their blood parents, and ‘ancestors’ suggests an ancient past, lineage or culture, represented by the image of Hina, Goddess of the Moon on Tehamana’s right. Above Tehamana’s head, we can see two rows of yellow glyphs taken from inscriptions that were discovered in 1864 on Easter Island (they have never been deciphered), and by her side, two ripe mangoes, alluding to Tahiti as an exotic, fertile land, or perhaps Tehamana as a mature, young woman? Tehamana herself strikes a very dignified pose, I think, and looks directly at us - confidently, warily?  Her hair is decorated with flowers, which Gauguin associated with the natural beauty and decorative sensibility of Tahitian women. In his written record of the funeral of King Pomare V in 1891, for example, Gauguin noted the glorious floral arrangements of Queen Marau, who ‘with the fine instinct of the Maoris…turned everything she touched into a work of art.’ And we even have Gauguin’s description of Tehamana herself, ‘clothed in the orange-yellow garment of purity’, as ‘a beautiful golden flower, whose Tahitian noa noa filled all with fragance, and which I worshipped as an artist, as a man.’ In stark contrast, Tehamana is here shown wearing the rather frumpy style of dress, high collared and long sleeved, that had been imposed on Tahitians by European missionaries. So what is Gauguin saying in this painting? Is it a criticism of European influence on Tahitian society and culture? And what is Tehamana’s role here? Does she embody the spirit of ancient Tahiti?

What do you think?

Comments

Christy

I believe that it was Delacroix that was once quoted as saying "some days I simply want to push paint around on the canvas". Creating an art work is not all intellectual; most often it is a marrying of the intellectual, the creative, the subconscious and conscious. Not always do we need to pry so deeply into the painter's mind to find the justification for the painting's content. I often find the non-artists and critics tend to dissect a bit too much any given work of art, especially the important ones. I see here, Gauguin looking for a balance of color and design in this painting, and he found it with is favorite subject clothed in this particular dress. He may have seen her in this setting and said to himself "this is how I wish to capture this scene, the composition has such wonderful balance and contrast," he captures the beauty of the person, adds some interesting symbolism, and creates an exceptional work of art from a moment of inspiration. I was mesmerized by this exhibit and so fortunate to be passing through London while it was on. I was exhausted when I left the gallery from trying to breath in so much of Gauguin's talent and technique which are inspiring. Thank you for a wonderfully presented exhibit.

Christy

I believe that it was Delacroix that was once quoted as saying "some days I simply want to push paint around on the canvas". Creating an art work is not all intellectual; most often it is a marrying of the intellectual, the creative, the subconscious and conscious. Not always do we need to pry so deeply into the painter's mind to find the justification for the painting's content. I often find the non-artists and critics tend to dissect a bit too much any given work of art, especially the important ones. I see here, Gauguin looking for a balance of color and design in this painting, and he found it with is favorite subject clothed in this particular dress. He may have seen her in this setting and said to himself "this is how I wish to capture this scene, the composition has such wonderful balance and contrast," he captures the beauty of the person, adds some interesting symbolism, and creates an exceptional work of art from a moment of inspiration. I was mesmerized by this exhibit and so fortunate to be passing through London while it was on. I was exhausted when I left the gallery from trying to breath in so much of Gauguin's talent and technique which are inspiring. Thank you for a wonderfully presented exhibit.

Anna

At one level I can understand Gaugin leaving his bourgeois life to pursue his artistic and personal inclinations. At another level I feel very uncomfortable about his leaving his family. I guess I need to know more about how his family felt and how they coped. A man's prerogative to abandon wife and children to pursue a deeply individualistic life? it would appear that one has to succeed as an artist to get away with it.

Anna

I found the exhibition fascinating but in the end I was thinking mostly about Gaugin living in his imagination more than in the reality of the exotic. Sailing to the South Seas does not take one away from reality. As the poet Kavafis wrote....the city will follow you, there is no road, no path for you....if your life lies in ruins in one place, it is in ruins in the whole world.

Evelina Dee-Shapland

I enjoyed this exhibition very much. The way the artist's works were grouped thematically in different rooms was very clever and helpful to understand his art. It always amazes me how some artists (Gauguin, Van Gogh) living through extreme hardships are able to radiate such freshness and optimism in their work! It's a breath of fresh air to look at their paintings. One little thing though - I found that the titles for the pictures were a bit too far from the paintings and could do with couple of sizes bigger (especially the year of creation) - exhibition is busy, so you have to fight your way in twice: first to see the work, and secondly - to read the caption about it. Also some of the letters fell off.. Thank you.

Pierre CIRET

Dear Christine. We certainly looked forward to the exhibition but on December 2nd, the Eurostar service was down due to snow. Our train was cacelled as well as our planned visit to Tate Modern. We had to bear with it, sadly losing our Internet-booked tickets in the process. We will try again because Gauguin is one of my favorite painters. Best regards.

Ori

I am visiting Modern Tate for 8 years now and saw many of the temporary exhibitions. Many of them were good (if I may judge - I am just a business man)but this one touched me in a different way. The life of the artist, the fact that he left the finance career, the revolutionary personality, the fact that he left his family (It seems that he had to...) the life in the remote islands and of course the art works - it was fascinating. Thank you.