Seeing the luscious colors and splashy patterns in the summer issues of the top shelter publications (“Big, Bold Blooms” an Elle Décor Trend Alert and “Imperial Red” the month’s Color Crush featured in House Beautiful) I was reminded of an exhibition staged at the Tate Modern I was lucky enough to see on opening day while visiting London in 2010. As I joined the throng of people pouring into the museum to see Gauguin: Maker of Myth, I was absolutely giddy because I was about to see many of the Tahitian works of Paul Gauguin in person for the first time.
Paul Gauguin in Tahiti
The nearly 150 items on view included paintings, drawings, carvings and prints, an assemblage that I would say is one of the most stimulating spectacles I’ve ever seen. Since the exhibition has been dismantled, the only way I can give you a taste of it is by way of this video I came across on The Telegraph and this excellent piece by Sophie Morris in the Financial Times—though neither comes close to illustrating the power of the exhibition. There is also an exhibition catalog that is well worth the price.
The Tate had gathered works from museums, institutions and collectors worldwide, and many of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings I found to be vibrantly alive when I studied his Polynesian works at Vermont College were included. To have the opportunity to walk through this revolutionary period of his life was remarkable, as the curators had assembled more than just art—even including a replica of the door-surround on the two-story hut he built himself, onto which he’d scrawled “Maison de Jouir”—so apropos of his sexually-charged mindset when he lived in the islands.
His most colorful paintings renewed my desire to see an animated composition from this period as a focal point in a chalky white contemporary interior but I’ve yet to come across the combination. If you have, share an image with me on social media, would you? When all was said and done, though, what fascinated me more than the art presented that day were the letters Gauguin had written to Van Gogh, the sketches he’d inserted into the body of the text beautifully illustrative of his words. It was as if time fell away and a pinpoint of history exploded in the room as I peered into the glassed cases holding them.
Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Journal
I’d read extensively about the relationship between the two volatile artists during my studies, which also led me to Gauguin’s journals during his Tahitian period titled Noa Noa. I was struck by how tortured the man had become by this time in his life, taking arsenic with regularity as he struggled with both physical and mental pain. “For some time past I had been growing restless,” he wrote. “My work suffered under it. It is true that I lacked many of the essential implements; it irritated me to be reduced to impotence in the face of artistic projects to which I had passionately given myself. But it was joy most of all which I lacked.”
When he embarked upon this adventure to the South Seas, he didn’t expect his life there to be riddled with syphilis, alcoholism and the morphine overdose that killed him—he thought it would relieve the angst that had dogged him in France. In October 1894 he expressed relief as he sailed for the islands:
I have come to an unalterable decision—
to go and live forever in Polynesia.
Then I can end my days in peace and freedom,
without thoughts of to-morrow and this
eternal struggle against idiots.
Noa Noa means “fragrant, fragrant” in the French Polynesian dialect, and the book, filled as it is with evocative descriptions only a visionary painter could pen, is an expressive choice for a summer reading list. The hardback is particularly beautiful due to the artwork intermingled with his powerful narrative—ten woodcuts Gauguin created for the project.
When I bought it years ago, I took it as a pure bonus that the introduction to the book was a story told by British novelist W. Somerset Maugham about going to Tahiti with the idea of interviewing people who had known Gauguin so he could write a novel based upon the painter’s experiences there. He came back with a piece of artwork that was about to be scraped off of a glass panel by the natives—on its way to matching the fate of two others already destroyed. “I have it in my writing-room,” Maugham wrote in 1962. What a lucky man he was to have such a treasure in the French interiors he created at his Villa Mauresque!
Because Noa Noa was considered particularly racy in 1900 when Gauguin was trying to publish it, he was forced to produce it himself without the artwork—the woodcuts added later. I am so glad he was determined enough to see the effort through because it is a piece of the artist’s history we may not have access to had he not, and the quality of the writing makes it all the more significant. I believe this resolve is a lesson for those of us wishing to leave a legacy, be it literary or artistic.
That said, I’ll admit I’m very good at honing narratives about certain periods of my life that feel “safe” enough to explore. The story Gauguin presents in the journal is emotionally avant-garde and sexually explicit for its time (though not even close to shocking now). Given the cultural mores then, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to leave such an honest account for posterity’s sake. I salute Gauguin for having the guts to tell all.
At times, Noa Noa breaks into poetic structure and when I saw this at first reading, I decided to see if I could poetically capture his voice. The result is this poem I wrote, which is included in my brand new book Anywhere But Here.
Exploring the Voice of Paul Gauguin
Mette, my dear husbandless wife,
have you heard what they are saying?
So I have savage blood—don’t we all:
just look at the curse of Original Sin
ravaging Eve before The Fall.
I have this awkward involvement with her,
it is true; both mother-protector
and mother-seducer. But I am tiring
of my quest to redeem her. And, Mette,
the night silence permeates my being;
the arsenic waits.
You will take comfort in these admissions,
I am sure, for I am destroying my fantasies
the further I enter into them, despising so
my own reality. I have tried to trust;
tried to unleash my impotent passion,
but I have so little confidence. Ah, Mette,
remember when I said,
Faith and Love are Oxygen.
They alone sustain life?
Is it any wonder the arsenic waits;
I cannot breathe.
Isn’t it interesting how Gauguin’s story still inspires writers to explore it? His fascinating life was not lost on W. Somerset Maugham and I couldn’t help but delve into his narrative, either, channeling his point of view as I imagined what he would write to his estranged wife from Tahiti as he destroyed everything he deemed valuable. It’s tales like his that make me question what legacy I will leave. I’m wondering if all writers feel this way. Any of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings are pieces of art that I’d give anything to live with day-to-day so I’m including this entry in my Living With Art series.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this Literary Adventurer entry © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.