Paul Gauguin and Primitivist Modernism or Pursuit of the "Natural"

Paul Gauguin's paintings from Tahiti mark the intersection of two powerful discourses in European culture: gender and primitivism. Disenchanted by the modern urban civilization of nineteenth-century France, Gauguin devoted his career to a quest for a more simpler, authentic, and 'natural' world untouched by 'civilization' and modern urban life. This is a dream inherited from the European imagination, manifested in myths like the Noble Savage. This quest lead Gauguin to produce a remarkable series of nudes of Tahitian women. His pursuit of the 'natural' nude in the end says less about the Tahitian culture he depicts that it does about western ideas about the female body and 'primitive' cultures.

Excerpts from Abigail Solomon-Godeau,

"Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism"

reprinted in The Expanding Discourse, Norma Broude and Mary Garrard eds, pp. 312-329.

p. 320: Insofar as we are concerned with Polynesia as a complex and overdetermined representation as well as a real place in time and history, we may start by asking what kinds of associations were generated around it in nineteenth-century France. From the moment of their 'discovery' --a locution which itself demands analysis-- by Captain Samuel Wallis in 1767, the South Sea Islands occupied a distinct position in the European imagination. Renamed La Nouvelle Cythère [Cythera was understood to be the Aegean Island upon which Venus landed after her birth. It was, in European imagination, an island dedicated to Venus and love. Antoine Watteau, a Flemish artist in France in the early eighteenth century, painted a famous work entitled The Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera. It is interesting to compare this painting to the works produced by Gauguin while he lived in Tahiti.] shortly after by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Tahiti especially figured under the sign of Venus: seductive climate. seductive dances, seductive (and compliant) women.

In the expeditionary literature generated by Captain Cook, Wallis, Bougainville and the countless successive voyagers to the South Seas, the colonial encounter is first and foremost the encounter with the body of the Other. How that alien body is to be perceived, known, mastered or possessed is played out within a dynamic of knowledge/power relations which admits of no reciprocity. On one level, what is enacted is a violent history of colonial possession and cultural dispossession --real power over real bodies. On another level, this encounter will be endlessly elaborated within a shadow world of representations-- a question of imaginary power over imaginary bodies.

In French colonial representation, the non-reciprocity of these power relations is frequently disavowed. One manifestation of this disavowal /p. 321: can be traced through the production of images and texts in which it is the colonized who needs and desires the presence and the body of the colonizer. The attachment of native women --often the tragic passion-- for their French lovers becomes a fully established staple of exotic literary production even before the end of the eighteenth century.

The perception of the Maori body --entering European political and representational systems much later than the black or Oriental body-- can be seen to both replicate and differ from the earlier models for knowing the Other's body. Like that of the African, the body of the South Sea islander is potentially --and simultaneously-- monstrous and idealized. In the Polynesian context, these bodily dialectics were charted on a spectrum ranging, on the one hand, from cannibalism and tattooing to, on the other, the noble savage (usually given a Grecian physiognomy) and the delightful vahine. It is the fantasmatic dualism of cannibalism and vahine which alerts us to the central homology between the Polynesian body and the African body in European consciousness. For as Christopher Miller has pointed out in relation to Africanist discourse, "The horror of monstrousness and the delight of fulfillment are counterparts of a single discourse, sharing the same conditions of possibility: distance and difference...."

Peter Brooks, "Gauguin's Tahitian Body,"

Reprinted in

The Expanding Discourse, Norma Broude and Mary Garrard eds, pp. 329-345.

p. 334: Gauguin went to Tahiti in large part because of the attraction of a sexuality ostensibly free of European conventions and repressions, and this meant that he, too, would have to ask questions about the meaning of the Tahitian sexual body. What he found in the Tahitian capital, Papeete, was not the Golden Age or even the nascent Iron Age, but the grim results of a century of efforts by Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon missionaries, and the disintegration of traditional social structure at the hands of colonial powers. Papeete was an ugly town of concrete houses with tin roofs and the women were fully covered with shapeless sack dresses. Arriving on the eve of the death of King Pomaré V --after which, by prior agreement, rule passed directly to France, which in reality had been in control for decades-- Gauguin chose in Noa Noa, his first book about his first Tahitian stay. to see the passing of this monarch as the final extinction of Maori culture: "With him disappeared the last traces of Maori customs. It was completely finished; nothing left but civilized people." This is inaccurate, in that Maori culture had been pretty well eradicated long before the death of the decadent and drunked Pomaré V -- in fact, there had been no kings in Tahiti until the Europeans set up one family of chiefs in this role--- but the event is useful for Gauguin's mythological narrative. His text continues: "Will I succeed in finding a trace of this so distant and so mysterious past? And the present didn't say anything worthwhile to me. To rediscover the ancient hearth, to revive the fire in the midst of all these ashes."

Like a number of other travel books, including Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, Noa Noa from the outset establishes itself as a quest, a journey back from a rotten civilization toward the savage state, which is also the place of a lost Maori culture. And in this quest, the Tahitian woman will naturally --as if predetermined by the prehistory of European contact with Tahiti-- play a central role, as the literal point of entry into the Maori soul. Gauguin's first woman, in Papeete, is the half-caste Titi, all he can find for the moment but clearly unsuitable for his larger purposes. Ridding himself of the inhibiting vestiges of civilization must wait upon his discovery of Tehamana, the golden body encasing the Maori soul.

To understand the importance of this Tahitian body for Gauguin, we ought properly to review his earlier artistic versions of the woman's body, especially his nudes, of which there are relatively few before his Tahitian stay, and which tend to be rather grim. But let me move immediately to his "Tahitian Eve," painted during the year following his arrival in the island, the well-known Te Nave Nave Fenua, or Delightful Land. Here, Eve has become frankly "native," her setting exotically /p. 335: and fantastically paradisiacal and sensuous, and her nudity presented boldly, and without coyness, to the viewer.

The figure of Eve is in fact the focal point for many of Gauguin's reflections on art, woman, and civilization. The most important statement to consider here is the letter he wrote to August Strindberg, during the year he spent in France between his two trips to Tahiti. Couched as an opposition between Strindberg's "civilization" and his own "barbarousness," the letter then focuses on Eve:

Before the Eve of my choice, whom I have painted in the forms and harmonies of another world, your chosen memories perhaps evoked a painful past. The Eve of your civilized conception makes you, and makes almost all of us, into misogynists; the ancient Eve, who frightens you in my studio, might some day smile on you less bitterly....The Eve I have painted (she alone) logically can remain nude before our eyes. Yours in this simple state couldn't walk without shame, and, too beautiful (perhaps) would be the evocation of an evil and a pain.

What is perhaps most interesting here is what Gauguin says about looking at the two Eves naked. It evokes a problem that posed itself acutely to late nineteenth-century painters: how to look at nudity (which essentially means female nudity) in a naturalizing way. The classical tradition as embodied in Beaux-Arts practice and the innumerable nudes exhibited at the Paris Salons had clearly become decadent, the nudes themselves both erotic and prettified, a kind of Second Empire and Third Republic pinup art that excused what it was doing through worn-out references to classical motifs: endless births of Venus, bacchantes, and artificial bathing scenes, which I will illustrate through one example: Eugène-Emmanuel Amaury-Duval's La Naissance de Vénus of 1862. Following the revolutionary gesture of his Baigneuses in 1853, Courbet in the 1860s had produced a series of nudes that for the most part seemed to make considerable concessions to commercial taste, such as the La Femme au perroquet of 1866. The Impressionists, with their desire to render modern life, and to place their paintings outdoors --"en plein air"-- faced the difficulty of finding plausible picturable settings for the nude-- and in fact, there are not that many nudes in Impressionist painting, with the exception of the later Renoir. The triumphant nude of Gauguin's time was of course Manet's Olympia, a painting that Gauguin worshiped: he took the trouble to copy it, and he had a photograph of it with him in Tahiti. But Olympia, and the scandal it provoked, points the problem: the naturalization of nudity in this case /p. 336: takes the form of showing up the artificiality of the Neoclassical nude by displaying the nude as prostitute, as a clearly sexualized body offered to the spectator's glance in the same manner she is offered to the paying customers. Gauguin wants something else, something that would remain fully erotic but without the connotations of shame, scandal, and exposure. That he repeatedly insisted on the figure of Eve --rather than, in the manner of Bougainville and nineteenth-century Salon painters, moving back into classical mythology and the evocation of Venus -- indicates a stubborn and no doubt accurate perception that Venus was no longer the point, no longer what nakedness was all about in the Western imagination. It is precisely Eve, with all the connotations of sin and shame, and the complex entry into the knowledge of good and evil, that is central to our perception of nudity, and that thus must be reconceived. As Gauguin stated in an interview in 1895, in response to the question why he had gone to Tahiti, "To do something new, you have to go back to the beginning, to the childhood of humanity. My chosen Even is almost an animal; that's why she is chaste, although naked. All those Venuses exhibited at the Salon are indecent, odiously lubricious...."

Thus Gauguin takes on the almost impossible challenge of revising Eve, of creating a nude in paradise whose nakedness is meant to be looked at in joy and erotic pleasure without the sense that her evident sexuality is connected to evil and pain. His success in this revision is of course dependent on a certain depersonalization of his Eve: in praising her "animality," he removes her from traditional cultural constraints and brackets her own subjectivity, in gestures that could be considered typical of both patriarchy and colonialism. One could indeed argue, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau has forcefully done, that Gauguin's primitivism is a "gendered discourse" that inscribes itself directly in a colonialist "dynamic of knowledge / power relations which admits no reciprocity." But such a claim does not do justice to the disruptive, interrogative force of Tahitian sexuality in Western discourse: Tahiti was not, at the outset, /p. 337: in the first debates its social arrangements provoked, a simple object of colonial rape, but a cultural problem. If one views (as I do) Gauguin's Tahitian painting with sympathy --as marking a decisive break from current European representations of the nude --one my want to counter with the argument that Gauguin produced new and compelling art even while his discourse remained hostage to primitivist myths because he turned this discourse to other uses, made his objects of representation call into question traditional kinds of looking. His construction of the "natural," in Te Nave Nave Fenua, for instance, is a matter of the utmost artifice, aimed at disarming our traditional view of the nude and of the primitive, revising the space of our observation and the context of our looking. Gauguin's "exotic" continually refers us back --and is meant to refer us back-- to the problem of the nude in Western art. In this sense, his flight to Oceania is less escapist than it might at first appear, and the art created there is constantly antithetical, using the Tahitian body as a commentary on the civilization that produced Eve. Gauguin implicitly reached back beyond the simpler forms of colonial domination, to participate, at a distance, in the earlier debate --that of Bougainville and Cook-- about how the Tahitian sexual body problematizes our standard versions of the body.

Noa Noa is very much the record of Gauguin's construction of a primitive paradise, indeed it is itself part of that construction, conceived as a kind of vade mecum for Gauguin's Tahitian paintings, attempting to control the way in which they are to be read through a narrative of the shedding of civilization, a progress back to primitivism, a /p. 339: becoming savage. A crucial passage from Noa Noa, revelatory of both Gauguin's project and his confusions, concerns the discovery of Tehamana (in more accurate Tahitian, Teha'amana), the thirteen-year-old girl who is offered to him as a bride by a woman at whose house he is lunching during his exploratory trip around the island. Suddenly, Bougainville's Arcadian Tahiti has come to life again. Gauguin brings this girl --whom he describes as simultaneously "melancholy and mocking" --back to his house in a largely silent journey. "Each of us observed the other; she was impenetrable; I was quickly beaten in this contest." Once again, as in the letter to Strindberg, Gauguin's relation to the female body is presented within a problematics of looking, where the male attempt to penetrate an impassive exterior reaches an impasse that can be resolved only in physical penetration. But after Tehamana has gone to visit her mother, and then returns a few days later, her cultural impenetrability is progressively breached by physical intimacy. Now the true Tahitian idyll begins:

Each day at sunrise the light was radiant in my hut. The gold of Tehamana's face illuminates everything around it and the two of us go to refresh ourselves in a nearby stream, naturally, simply, as in Paradise....

The life of every day -Tehamana yields herself daily more and more, docile and loving; the Tahitian noa noa pervades the whole of me; I am no longer conscious of the days and the hours, of Evil and of Good --all is beautiful-- all is well. Instinctively, when I am working, when I am meditating, Tehamana keeps silence, she always knows when to speak to me without disturbing me....

In bed, at night: conversations. The stars interest her greatly; she asks me the name in French of the morning star, the evening star. She has trouble understanding that the earth turns around the sun. In her turn she tells the names of the stars in her language....

...At this central moment of Noa Noa, then, Gauguin's search for the savage state leads him to the gift of the body of a Tahitian girl, who at first appears to be impenetrable golden surface, and in bed with her he finally discovers the long-gone and mysterious Maori past, and indeed the kep to Maori beliefs and ways. So he would have us believe. He wants us to understand that it is the very golden body of this silent girl which holds the key to what he had been looking for, that entering her body opens his way to primitivism as a coherent and totalized world view, and its symbols which --reformulated with all the fictional revision that characterizes this moment of Noa Noa --would become part of his art.

An indispensable painting in this context is Manao Tupapau, from late 1892, which in fact "illustrates" the next episode of Noa Noa, which in fact "illustrates" the next episode of Noa Noa, which recounts how Gauguin, delayed on a trip to town, comes home late at night, to find the lamp in the hut extinguished from lack of fuel and Tehamana lying awake on the bed, staring in wide-eyed terror in fear of the legendary evil spirits of the night, the tupapau. Gauguin described the scene and the painting several times: in a letter to his wife, in the notebook dedicated to his daughter, Cahier pour Aline, and in later versions of Noa Noa, insisting alternately on its Tahitian symbolism and on its pictorial qualities, on its nature as a vision of Maori superstitions, and on its generic nature as a nude study in which the Maori elements are simply a context to display Tehamana's body. He thus thoroughly covers his tracks, and eludes any single interpretive intention. Alfred Jarry in a poem of 1894 described the nude as "brown Olympia," and a number of commentators have subsequently noted Gauguin's evident ambition to rephrase Manet's painting --a photograph of which was takced on the wall of Gauguin's hut-- in Tahitian terms. Like the body of Olympia, that /p. 340: in Manao Tupapau is offered to the spectator's gaze, though not frontally this time-- rather, in a pose that refuses to be a pose, refuses the sense of self-display that one finds in Olympia and the distinct impression given by Manet's girl that she is available for a price. Gauguin's nude is also available, but in a more unself-conscious way, and without connotations of venality. As an Olympia turned over, the nude of Manao Tupapau may suggest a comment on the problematics of penetrability and impenetrability posed by Gauguin --may suggest, to use his term, a greater "animality" than that evoked by the classic poses of the nude.

The naked female form, slipping forward toward the frontal plane of the canvas, dislodges the viewer from his traditional space of visual dominance. It is offered to the spectator's gaze in such a way that its nakedness, conceived as natural to the woman herself, without overtones of sin or commerce, is made both natural as a object of vision, and a challenge to standard prettified eroticism. (One could contrast here some of Boucher's rear views of naked women --for instance, his Mlle O'Murphy.) In contrast to the attributes of Olympia that betoken her exchange value --the pose, the bold gaze, the black servant bearing flowers sent by an admirer or a keeper --those of Manao Tupapau suggest an economy of the gift, as it would be defined by Marcel Mauss: the free and generous offering, which must be responded to by a corresponding gift-- which may here be the the painting itself. And the gift of the potlatch, as Georges Bataille points out, is related to the creation of sacred objects: objects that have no use value, that belong not to an economy of exchange and accumulation but to an economy of waste, glorious expenditure, Gauguin, one might say, is attempting to reach back beyond the economy of exchange to that of the gift --as it were denying Wallis's version of Tahiti in order to resurrect Bougainville's vision.

The result is achieved in part, I think, by Gauguin's decorative treatment of the setting and the vaguely symbolic elements --which are perhaps signs of "primitiveness" more than anything else-- and also by the sculptural weight and volume of the body itself. Other paintings of the same moment, such as Aha Oe Feii? (Are You Jealous?) /p. 343: could help to make the point, but I want in brief space to mention two others, from the second Tahitian stay. The first is Te Arii Vahine of 1896-- The Noble Woman-- which clearly alludes to a long tradition of Western nudes, very much including Manet's Olympia and its own prototype, Titian's Venus of Urbino. (Another source mentioned is Cranach's Diana Reclining, of which Gauguin may also have owned a photograph.) Te Arii Vahine evidently suggests the nymphs and Dianas and Venuses of Western art, perhaps even Eve, since the vine wrapped around the tree of knowledge in a number of Renaissance paintings, the pieces of mango evoke the forbidden fruit, and the fan held behind her head by the Tahitian woman almost suggests a halo, triggering responses within the biblical tradition. But all these allusions must be seen almost as comic, as citations from a tradition that has been made irrelevant by a place and a person so clearly unconcerned with Western allegories of the locus amoenus and its loss. Especially when one considers the somewhat absurd cloth covering the figure's loins --held almost as if she didn't know its purpose-- one has the sense of a Tahitian figure consciously posed by the artist within a Western iconographical tradition of which she is unaware and which doesn't concern her. She appears simply content to display her body, and all the elements of the storybook paradise landscape concur in its display.


The other painting is the Two Tahitian Women of 1899, with its almost classical ease in the presentation of this full, strong body that emerges into the sunlight to confront the viewer in full erotic beauty, without any coyness or indeed any self-consciousness. Her face is impassive, neither soliciting nor refusing our gaze. It is a body full of strength and repose. The unidentified flowers or fruits offered on the tray become a simple metonymy of the body offered as such. One can, to be sure, simply stigmatize the painting as one more example of a male gaze taking woman as its sexual object. It is this, of course. But we may also find it more moving and persuasive as a painting about looking: about the positive, guilt-free invitation to take pleasure in the gaze directed to the body.

If Gauguin began as a deluded participant in the myth of Tahiti --on the very banal level of the Colonial Exhibition and the travel brochure-- he managed to supplant, or perhaps more accurately to supplement, that myth with one of his own (which thereafter becomes part of our myth of Tahiti). While his thought was limited by colonialist polarities --"civilized" and "primitive," "culture" and "nature" -- his attempt to reverse their valorizations may be said to have had an animating effect in his art. I would claim that he did achieve a kind of solution to the persistent problem of the body in nineteenth-century art and culture. It is a "solution" that remains bounded by the ideology of the male gaze on the female body-- even as they border on androgyny, his bodies remain resolutely female-- and, in its interpretive mythology of the Maori world opened and retrieved by way of the body, stands with an old tradition of allegorization of the woman's body. Nonetheless, everything in Gauguin's performance sets a challenging standard for all later artists who would attempt to rethink the tradition of the nude. I find myself in this inconclusive conclusion thinking back to an anonymous chronicler of Cook's first voyage who, after describing the Tahitians' practice of tattooing their bodies, noted that upon first seeing the Europeans write, the Tahitians dubbed the practice tattoo. Gauguin's effort is a kind of tattoo: not so much a writing on the body -- thoough there certainly are messages inscribed on his nudes-- but writing of and with the body, making the body not so much a transcendent signified as the ultimate, irreducible signifier.