Words are an integral element in Gauguin’s work. He explained that his paintings involved a ‘musical part’– their composition, lines and colours – and a ‘literary part’– the creation of a story that justified his aesthetic decisions. Devising the title was an essential part of the process, particularly so when it was carved into the frame or painted onto the canvas. However, these fragmentary texts never fully explain or close down the meaning of an image. The stories remain ambiguous.
When he chose Tahitian titles for his paintings, their ability to conjure a remote, exotic world for western ears seems to have been as important to him as their specific meaning. His own grasp of the Tahitian language was patchy, but he was entranced by the barely comprehended snatches of speech around him, and often noted down phrases that turned out to be quite prosaic when translated. Indeed, the unfamiliar words that he incorporates into his paintings help to preserve an estranged distance between the European viewer and the tropical scene. Several of his Tahitian paintings are titled with questions, including ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘Are you jealous?’, apparently fragments of conversation between the figures that hint at small dramas played out between them.