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Paul Gauguin's Tahitian mistress Tehamana modeled for many of his South Seas works, including the lush Te Nave Nave Fenua (The Delightful Land), 1892. (Ohara Museum of Art)

Gauguin's Bid for Glory

Of all the images created by the artist Paul Gauguin, none was more striking than the one he crafted for himself

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In Pont-Aven, his work took a radically new direction. His Vision of the Sermon was the first painting in which he used vibrant colors and simple forms within bold, black outlines, in a style called Cloisonnism reminiscent of stained glass. The effect moved the painting away from natural reality toward a more otherworldly space. In Sermon, a tree limb on a field of vermilion divides the picture diagonally, Japanese style. In the foreground a group of Breton women, their traditional bonnets looking like “monstrous helmets” (as Gauguin wrote to Vincent van Gogh), have closed their eyes in reverie. On the top right is their collective religious experience: the biblical scene of Jacob wrestling with a gold-winged angel. One critic’s response to the evocative, hallucinatory picture was to anoint Gauguin the master of Symbolism.

Pleased with the large canvas, Gauguin enlisted artist friends to carry it for presentation to a stone church nearby. But the local priest refused the donation as “nonreligious and uninteresting.” Gauguin seized on this affront as a public relations opportunity, writing outraged letters and encouraging his collaborators to spread the word back in Paris. As art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews has noted, “Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon gained more notoriety by being rejected than it ever would have from being politely accepted by the priest and just as politely put into a closet.”

In 1888, as is now legendary, Vincent van Gogh invited Gauguin, whom he had met in Paris, to join him in Arles to create an artists’ “Studio of the South.” At first Gauguin demurred, arguing that he was ill, debt-ridden or too involved in a prospective business venture. But Theo van Gogh offered the perpetually poor Gauguin a reason to accept his brother’s invitation—a stipend in exchange for a painting a month. Gauguin’s two-month stay in Arles’ Yellow House proved productive—and fraught. “Vincent and I do not agree on much, and especially not on painting,” Gauguin wrote in early December. In a drunken argument soon after, van Gogh approached Gauguin with a razor. Gauguin fled, and van Gogh turned the razor on himself, cutting off part of his ear. Even so, the two corresponded until van Gogh killed himself 18 months later.

After Gauguin returned to Paris from Arles, he created one of his most bizarre carvings, Self-Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head. Perhaps an allusion to John the Baptist, this stoneware head drips with macabre red glaze. Did the gruesome image come from the bloody experience with van Gogh? The guillotining of a convicted murderer Gauguin had recently witnessed? Or was it simply a nod to the then current fascination with the macabre?

The Universal Exposition of 1889, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, marked a defining moment for Gauguin. He enthusiastically attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, admired the plaster casts of the Buddhist Temple of Borobudur and viewed the paintings on display. Artists who weren’t included in these state-sponsored exhibits tried to capitalize on the fair’s popularity (28 million people turned out) by organizing their own shows outside the perimeter. But the uninvited Gauguin, supported largely by the devoted Schuffenecker, audaciously mounted a group show at Volpini’s Café on the fairgrounds.

Gauguin was particularly taken with the Exposition’s ethnographic displays, featuring natives from France’s colonies in Africa and the South Pacific. He painted Javanese dancers, collected photographs of Cambodia and otherwise whetted his desire for a tropical Elysium. He wanted, he wrote, to “be rid of the influence of civilization ...to immerse myself in virgin nature, see no one but savages, to live their life.” He was also aware that “novelty is essential to stimulate the stupid buying public.”

It was likely the Exposition that pointed him to Tahiti. As he prepared for his trip the following year, he wrote to a friend that “under a winterless sky, on marvelously fertile soil, the Tahitian has only to reach up his arms to gather his food.” The description comes almost word for word from the Exposition’s official handbook.

Arriving in French Polynesia’s capital, Papeete, in June 1891, Gauguin found it much less exotic than he had imagined—or hoped. “The Tahitian soil is becoming completely French,” he wrote to Mette. “Our missionaries had already introduced a good deal of protestant hypocrisy and wiped out some of the poetry” of the island. The missionaries had also transformed women’s fashion, doubtless to Gauguin’s dismay, from the traditional sarong and pareu to cotton dresses with high collars and long sleeves. He soon moved to the village of Mataiea, where the locals, as well as the tropical landscape, were more to his liking because they were less Westernized.

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