Gauguin’s approach to his female subjects changed around the time he took up the role of artist-tourist. His travels to increasingly remote locations provided environments where he could imagine a pre-modern existence. In such settings, he presented women as timeless figures rather than specific subjects, their stories drawn from local folk tales, the Bible and classical mythology. However, Gauguin resisted many of the conventions of allegorical representation and, rather than perfecting and idealising the symbolic female, often introduced awkward or grotesque elements.
Gauguin’s interest in cultural archetypes correlated with his attraction to the Romantic myth of the ‘Eternal Feminine’, much invoked by Symbolist artists and writers of the period, whereby a woman was an instinctual or spiritual being, whether a wicked temptress or a saintly virgin. This room explores some of Gauguin’s particular icons of female identity.
Starting from naturalistic observations of women at a Breton riverside, Gauguin replaced the figures with one archetypal woman in the waves, stripped of social specificities. An 1889 work on this theme was given the title Ondine invoking the German folk tale of a water sprite who achieves a soul by marrying a human, only to issue a fatal curse on her husband to punish his infidelity. This lone woman in the waves recurs in paintings, on fans and wood carvings. Later Polynesian paintings of women at the water’s edge abandon this mythic allusion, as Gauguin restores a sense of sociability to the scene.
Gauguin juggled two contrasting images of Eve, the original femme fatale of Judeo-Christian mythology. One is positioned in a closed, hunched posture, while the other stands proud, tall and unashamed. He differentiated between these two Eve-types on ethnic grounds, presenting the stooped figure as Caucasian, the upright as an ‘Exotic Eve’. This latter was initially created as a composite of diverse sources: a Javanese frieze, a photograph of his mother and possibly an Indian miniature. Early Eves are identifiable through the presence of a serpent, but when setting the Temptation in Tahiti, Gauguin introduced a black winged lizard because snakes were unknown on the island.
Translated as ‘mysterious water’, Gauguin gave the title Pape Moe to a number of works that show a female figure leaning over a rock at the water’s edge to catch a drink from a natural spring. The principal source for the image was a photograph taken by Charles Spitz (in which the water actually emerges from a pipe), but Gauguin drew out its poetic and spiritual qualities as he returned to the figure in paintings, prints and carvings. In Gauguin’s book Noa Noa, the scene is described as if witnessed at first hand by the artist. Perhaps the most striking variation is the wooden relief sculpture in which the spring has become a tumbling waterfall and mysterious faces seem to emerge from the vegetation.
Oviri 1894, from a Tahitian word meaning ‘savage’, was considered by Gauguin to be his greatest ceramic sculpture. Rejecting conventional Western ideals of grace and beauty, this wilfully distorted and disproportionate deity – invented by Gauguin – was the culmination of his robust and threatening female figures. The sculpture was refused admission to a usually liberal fine arts salon in Paris in 1895, probably on the grounds of its perceived ugliness.
The figure’s grasp on a cub snatched from the she-wolf beneath her feet is reminiscent of Delacroix’s painting of the murderous mother Medea. Sculptures leading up to Oviri include Black Venus 1889, which shows a woman kneeling over a severed head which resembles Gauguin’s, and Lewdness (La Luxure) 1890, a female figure accompanied by a fox, an animal that the artist sometimes associated with himself. Confirming his profound identification with this somewhat androgynous goddess, he requested that the sculpture be placed on his grave.