Gauguin discovers Tahiti
"May come the day (and maybe soon) when I will run away to the woods on an island in Oceania, live there in ecstasy, calm and art. Surrounded by a new family, far from this European struggle after money. There in Tahiti, I will be able, in the silence of the beautiful tropical nights, to listen to the soft murmuring music of the movements of my heart in loving harmony with the mysterious beings around me. Finally, free, without the worry of money and could love, sing, and die. In February 1890 already, Paul confided to his wife his expectations of the exotic elsewhere and of the life he could lead there. A few months before the big departure, he projected himself into his new existence: "My material life once well organized, I can, there, give myself up to the great works of art, free from all artistic jealousies, without any need for vile traffic. In art, the state of mind in which one enters for three quarters;
Discover and flee Papeete, too colonized
When he set foot in Tahitian soil, in Papeete on June 9, 1891, Paul was forty-three years old and, in his trunks, some personal belongings, his "paper museum" as well as his painting and sculpture equipment. "An assortment of gouges and woodcarver scissors", according to Paulin Jénot, the lieutenant of naval infantry who welcomes him and helps him find accommodation. […] In the Tahitian capital, he does not go unnoticed. It must be said that he denotes with his long hair and his neglected setting. Learning that he is nicknamed "taata-vahine" (which means man-woman), he resolves to cut his hair and buy a white colonial suit. It is the price to pay to try to find a place in this small world, far too narrow for its taste.
"It has been twenty days since I arrived. I have already seen so much new things that I am troubled. It will take some time to make a good painting. Little by little, I'm getting into it by studying every day a little," he wrote to Mette. Eager to discover something other than the capital, Paul accepted the invitation of the teacher Gaston Pia, located fifteen kilometers to the south, in the district of Paea. He spent several delicious weeks there. Back in Papeete in mid-September, Gauguin made a first assessment: more than three months that he was there and few prospects on the horizon, the expected portrait orders not arriving. He realized only one, for two hundred francs, that of Suzanne Bambridge, far from being unanimous. It is time to flee Papeete to start looking for the new Cythera of which he has so much dreamed.
In search of the "real Tahiti"
When he goes looking for a new place, Paul has a few criteria in mind: the beauty of the place, of course, the presence of the sea if possible, and authenticity. He wants to live surrounded by natives. This paradise on earth, he finds it forty-five kilometers from Papeete, in Mataiea, a village located on the edge of a lagoon, in the south of the island, which has the triple merit of being served by a road, to welcome Europeans and to be in a Catholic district. As soon as he arrives, he knows he wants to settle there.
Little by little, Paul discovers life in Tahiti, where it is normal to eat and even sleep in any house, where human relationships are simple and direct, and this despite the language barrier. He is sincere in his desire to know the Tahitians around him and is as curious as possible. Despite everything, he found it difficult to be free from all the sexist, racist, and colonial prejudices, which then shaped Western thought. All open and willing it to be, there is a white man who grew up in the West at the end of the XIX th century.
Every day, he walks around the area notebook in hand. He soaks up this new life, sketching exotic plants and animals, Tahitian attitudes, bodies, and faces. He then composed his first paintings, depicting his neighbors and scenes from daily life. "I started to work, notes, sketches of all kinds," he explains in Noa Noa. Everything blinded me, dazzled me in the landscape. His first Tahitian effigy from a living model, he represents it with simplicity. He strives to find the few essential lines that will make his face and his appearance. It is painted thick to express the force which emerges from this active body. He chooses the most vibrant colors possible, the only ones capable of translating the incredible vibration that emanates from tropical light: tablecloths of chrome yellow, blue and indigo, complementary and dynamic, with a touch of vermilion.
The gold of their skin
He takes pleasure in observing the women who move and hold themselves in such a special way. He does everything he can to get from his neighbors and his relationships that they pose for him, to study on the fly all these specificities that touch him so much: their massive silhouettes and their thick members, their clothes. After having scribbled enough studies, he starts to paint. On one of them, he camps two women seated on the beach. He does his best to translate this idea of languor specific to the tropics into an image (called fiu), made of mystery and animality, with a touch of melancholy. He notably embodies him in a naked woman, seated in profile and completely impassive ( Aha oefeii? Eh what! Are you jealous? ), To whom he gives the posture of a figure of a bas-relief of the temple of Dionysos at Athens, of which he has a photograph in his hut.
Gauguin adds a strong symbolic content in his compositions, translating impalpable beliefs into images: this is the challenge he now intends to take up and for which he intends to draw from what he has learned and seen from traditional Tahitian culture, but also from everything he imagines and fantasizes. Its purpose is not to deliver ethnographic testimonies of Tahitian civilization but to evoke it through its poetic and subjective visions. If he paid a high price to get here and to set up his workshop in the tropics in the shade of the coconut trees, it was to benefit from the total freedom of creation—no question of bridling. There, at the end of the world, he is exempt from bourgeois morals and the dictates of academies and other schools of fine arts. He does not refrain from imagining idols, statues, and statuettes in precious wood, which are pure creations. Some would cry sacrilege! The sacred Tahitian monuments have unfortunately disappeared, and the statuettes never existed, but no one prevents him from producing them himself. It is his way, to regret this dilution of traditional culture, and to go against the generalized indifference in which it operates.