Noa Noa, Gauguin’s best-known and most fully realised book, brings together accounts of Tahitian religious belief and Gauguin’s personal experiences on the island. He began work on it after returning to France in 1893, combining the forms of artist’s book and travelogue. Introducing himself as ‘the teller’ throughout the text, Gauguin played up the ambiguity of his role as adventurer and storyteller. His first-hand narrative is interspersed with commentary and poems by the Symbolist writer Charles Morice, who seems to speak for an imagined French audience, intrigued but perplexed by the artist’s exotic accounts and images.
He made ten woodcuts intended for the book, which relate to the Tahitian origins-of-life myths referenced in the text. His rough and ready printing technique – even, reportedly, using his bedstead as a press – and his fondness for varying inks, paper type and pressures ensured that no two prints were identical. Gauguin’s longstanding fascination with combining text and image produced a number of other works, including Cahier pour Aline a scrapbook of press-cuttings, drawings and interpretations of his own practice. His tone in text and print veers from the solemn and mystificatory to the sardonic and humorous. In Tahiti he even launched his own satirical journal Le Sourire to attack colonial institutions. And in the short autobiographical text completed in the year of his death, he honed his reputation as a rebel, an artistic innovator and libertine, telling his own tale, with one eye on his contemporary audience, the other on posterity.