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Paul Gauguin

June 2, 2011

What is more unlikely, that painter Paul Gauguin would find his way to this tiny island late in life and from here produce his most famous works or that now the largest building and compound in the town of Atuona–a rarely touristed village of 2,000, mostly native Marquesans, a village that lacks a library, a bookstore, a movie theatre, a coffee shop–is the Paul Gauguin cultural center?


I arrive at two o’clock on an afternoon that is somewhere between partly sunny and torrentially wet. The decorative wooden gate supported by a mossy, volcanic rock wall is propped open and the broad path leads to an immaculately groomed garden of grass, tall trees and flowering plants surrounding seven neatly maintained buildings.

In front of the largest are ensconced three Marquesan women at a card table, one coos a baby, another holds a battery operated fly swatter, and the third smokes a cigarette. The soft patter of talk stops as I approach and the woman holding the fly swatter notes my arrival with a question. Presuming the question has something to do with my admission into the gallery, I remark, “Oui,” to which she makes hand gestures suggesting I should stop where I am. I stop.

Quickly she tidies the card table, which only contains a small box and a pad of paper; then she unlocks the door to the museum, turns on the lights, steps behind the greeting desk, puts on a name tag, lays a few brochures onto the counter, and having accomplished these tasks, she smiles my way and motions for me to enter.

Business at the Paul Gauguin museum is not brisk today.

I enter and Sylvia (per the name tag) softly asks a few more questions to which I answer “Oui, Non, Oui” at random but in a way that apparently suits for my 6000 franc admission is taken and I am given a receipt stating that I should “Please retain this ticket as guarantee at all times for display to the docent.”

In pitch perfect English and a sweeping wave of her arm Sylvia says, “You may now visit the museum grounds including Gauguin’s house at the rear.”

“May I look into the gallery first?” I ask. Sylvia has no idea what I’ve said but smiles in the direction I am pointing and nods agreement.


My ability to grok the plastic arts is limited. Contemporary painting in particular relies so heavily on personal context–the artist’s other works, the tradition in which he paints or to which he is reacting, his dreams, feelings, specific physical surroundings–that without a background in that painter’s objectives, I find one is often able to appreciate color and composition and not much else.

Besides, I like words. If a picture is worth a thousand of them, I’ll take the words every time. They are more evocative, require more participation, are a more complete experience. Though the words and the stories they become may benefit from a knowledge of the author and his milieu, they rarely require it, and one does not have to go to a museum or hike up to some great stone in the jungle to appreciate them.

This is personal bias and is only meant, here, to explain why when I entered the Paul Gauguin museum my expectations were low.

But I stayed the rest of the day.


The main hall is five large, dimly lit, cream colored rooms connected by gently sloping ramps bordered with tiki logs. The walls of each room are crowded with Gauguin’s paintings, all professional replicas, the museum plaques are quick to explain, to original size and color scheme. Gauguin’s work is now in the public domain, so the replicas are even free to carry the artist’s signature.

No order, chronological or otherwise, is immediately obvious, and though there are paintings from the artist’s time in Brittany, for example, most of the paintings were done in the islands.

When painting from the islands, Tahiti and later Hiva Oa, Gauguin concentrates almost exclusively on two themes. One is the women. Room after room, painting after painting of Polynesian women, often alone or in groups of two or three, usually sitting, but sometimes standing or reclining, usually in doors or in an abstract space. Full nudes are rare though half nudes are not and frequently the women are clothed in a colorful, shape-covering gown from the neck down that leaves the face as the only body feature on which to focus. The women’s features are strong: there is a bluntness, even brutishness, about them. Lips, jaws, cheeks, shoulders, thighs, hands and feet all seem exaggeratedly large, thick, heavy. None of the women are moving. All are silent. And their expressions are within a narrow range of feeling; they are not sad, remorseful, grieving so much as they appear to be bored, depressed, sullen. There is no sensuality whatever. And there are no men.

The museum explains it thusly:

The quest for the primitive, the savage, which was Gauguin’s driving force throughout his life as an artist, was dissociable from his profound cultural immersion in the societies in which he lived in the course of his various voyages. In this respect, Brittany and French Polynesia are significant insofar as Gauguin’s works drew to a considerable extent from the representation of the Other and the material and religious culture of both places. However, it was in Tahiti that the relation to exoticism was most obvious, even if the artist’s plans were different, namely to avoid making too systematic a use of Greek canons of beauty…

Which is museum speak for “we have no idea what‘s going on in these paintings.”

The other theme is Gauguin himself. One whole wall of the main room is dedicated to his self portraits which are then sprinkled throughout the exhibit. His aquiline nose and jutting, clenched jaw are consistently prominent. There is a stubbornness, a pugnaciousness in him. He is self assured tending toward self-righteousness.

Most remarkable is how little of the island made it into Gauguin’s painting. Here there is a beach, there a stylized ocean, a mango, a dog, a flower, a tiki, and that’s about it. No mountains, no valleys, no lush, steaming jungle or birds or clouds. And I don’t even think he got the women right. In my very brief time here, I don’t find sullenness; the weather may be cloudy and tempestuous, but the people are playful, open.

In his writing Gauguin makes it clear he wasn’t trying for realism. Printed and hung throughout the museum, his letters, specifically those to his wife Mette who remained in Paris, reveal a man who knew he had genius but whose struggle was finding it. He wasn’t here for the stark beauty of the place so much as its isolation. Noisy, opinionated Europe was not here; his critics were not here. On the island he could here himself think. As he wrote it, his paintings were buried deeply within “the logic of his mind”, but they were shy and took coaxing.

So the women, their separation from community and family, their isolation, even from one another when in groups–their silence, reserve, stasis–these too are self portraits.


Endlessly we apply words to paintings as if words are a kind of paint the painting requires in order to be complete. Art history classes, meaty coffee table books, museum chatter smothers painting in meaning and intent, but the medium, its power, is essentially ineffable. The words we use never quite cut it–that’s why we use so many.

I don’t know what Gauguin was trying to say. The colors are striking, the composition unusual and compelling, but the surfaces reach down and into a depth I cannot describe, though I was there.

Sometimes beauty just is.

More photographs here…

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