The vibrant and decorative art of Gauguin, whose life has provided such spectacular material for novelists, biographer, and other commentators, has lately been introduced into the Institute's collection in a painting of the first Tahitian period: I Raro Te Oviri (Under the Pandanus).
It is the second of two versions of this subject, both done in 1891, and is one of the earliest examples of the exotic style that was to become Gauguin's mature and most personal expression.
The first version of the picture, now in the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, is slightly smaller than the second, but apart from the size, and the placing of the inscription, the two canvases are almost identical. The second has an added quality of dignity and statuesqueness, according to the critic Wilhelm Barth, but both possess the serenity of spirit that so enchanted Gauguin in Tahiti. The Institute's painting measures about twenty-eight by thirty-six inches, and is signed and dated at the lower left, with the title opposite. The picture was acquired through the Dunwoody Fund and is now on view in the central painting gallery.
The scene portrayed is a stretch of beach sheltered by the spreading branches of the pandanus. Its slender leaves, motionless against the vivid blue green of the sea beyond, hang like tattered plumes above the heads of two native women in the foreground. The one on the left is wrapped in a red skirt with a pattern of yellow leaves. Above her ear she wears two small white flowers, and in the crook of her left arm she carries a basket. The woman at the right wears a white cotton shirt and a blue skirt with a line of pale, sulphur-colored leaves at top and bottom. Across her shoulders she carries a pole balanced with clusters of fruit. Her head is turned back toward her companion and her eyes done upon the black dog which stands between them, its red tongue projecting like a flame against the purple shadows on the sand. On the edge of the shore in the left background another woman in a blue skirt gazes at a youth poised against the crest of the incoming surf. Dimly, in the far background, rises a low line of hills washed pale by the brilliant light.
In this canvas Gauguin has made articulate his first deep awareness of that primitive serenity of spirit which had troubled and beguiled him all his life. For one arrested fraction of time the answer to all his questioning is clear. In just a moment the incoming wave will break, the two native women will proceed on their way, and the figure on the shore's edge will stir again in the sun. But here, now, in this suspended, golden world, Gauguin has presented an admirably orchestrated composition in which line and form and color combine to express his reaction to a discovery that moved him profoundly. This personal and optic quality of Gauguin's art, which emerges most clearly in the works of the first Tahitian period, constitutes his particular contribution to the new experiments in form and structure which Seurat and Cézanne had begun to make during the late 1880s. One of the main tenets of Impressionism, which had been the chief preoccupation of the advanced group of artists for some years, was that painting should be spontaneous in character, and confined to subjects accidentally encountered. But both Seurat and Cézanne, working independently, arrived at the conviction that a serious work of art should be a considered work of art, in which the parts were formally organized to produce an ordered whole. In this belief they were reaffirming the major place of architecture in art.Other artists of the period, Gauguin among them, accepted this theory enthusiastically and began, each in his own way, to employ the actual representation of a subject not as an end in itself but as a means to an end, that is, the ordered use of line and form and color to create a composition that would convey to the observer, much as music might convey to him, the artist's conception of a given subject. The close association between architecture, music, and painting that manifested itself as this particular period is evident in the work of such men as Cézanne, Renoir, Seurat, Gauguin, and others.Gauguin's actual break with Impression had occurred at the time of his first trip to Martinique in 1887. In the paintings of that year he had given the first suggestion of the exotic form his art would ultimately take. The types and the barbaric colors of Martinique so delighted him that when he returned again to Brittany he incorporated into his pictures of that region the brilliant reds and yellows and blues that were henceforth to predominate in his paintings. Gauguin's preoccupation with color, and the interest in form and pattern that had developed from his earlier contact with the Breton landscape, made it easy for him to bridge the gap between representation as an end and representation as a means to expression.This progress in his evolution as an artist was evident in the works of this period, which he characterized as Synthesist-Symbolist; a term that denoted at once a symbolic as opposed to an imitative use of color and line, and the inclusion in his pictures of figures that represented a mental as opposed to an actual image. The figure of the old woman in the celebrated painting of The Spirit of the Dead Watching
is an example of Gauguin's symbolism, although he had dropped the use of the term during the year before his first trip to Tahiti. Its use had been suggested by the Symbolist poets Rimbaud, Malarmé, and others, but when it began to become common among artists Gauguin no longer used it.Thus it will be seen that Gauguin was already working along the lines which Seurat and Cézanne were to perfect, and that his alliance with the movement they launched was a natural step for him. His goal, like theirs, was to create compositions in terms of color, form, and line, that could serve as logically and as movingly as music to express emotion or experience. But to this representational aspect of painting Gauguin added qualities of mystery and poetry that endow his paintings with an atmosphere not to be found in the scientific compositions of Seurat nor in the exuberant blonde works of Renoir. With their suggestive character they provide, despite their bold and barbaric colors, a retreat for the soul. Shadows lurk in them, striking a nostalgic note that gives tongue to the universal, if intermittent, desire for solitude and isolation.These qualities in Gauguin's painting present the observer with the key to a personality whose complexity has been exaggerated because of its unconventional aspects. Gauguin said: “A man's work is the explanation of that man,” and even before one had become conversant with the facts of his life one senses in his art his overwhelming need for the freedom of thought and action that he envisaged as being completely obtainable only in a primitive society. In his search for the environment that would contribute sympathetically to his expression of himself, Gauguin brushed aside the pretensions with which civilized man had clothed himself, and endeavored to show that only among primitive peoples could true dignity, grace, and serenity of spirit flourish. His own faith in this belief is evident in the broad and harmoniously realized works of the Tahitian period, in which his figures move with slumberous and elemental grace through their exotic landscape.Unhappily, Gauguin was not to experience, except for fleeting periods, the peace of mind and body for which he strove. The veneer that civilization had laid upon him was not to be removed merely by association with primitive peoples, and he found himself, throughout his painter's life, dogged by physical and spiritual want.Like certain other great artists—poets, musicians, and painters—Gauguin must have been a difficult person to have around. He was sensitive, obstinate, egotistical, and selfish. He wanted what he wanted the way he wanted it. But one can only admire the singleness of purpose that carried him as close to his goal as he was spiritually able to arrive. He sacrificed everything to his art, only to find bitterness at the end in the realization that his paintings were offensive and incomprehensible to the world at large. He once remarked that he was making great progress, but that it would be to no avail since it would only mean that his work would be less understood than ever before.Considering his heredity it was perhaps natural that his life should have been a stormy one. He was born in Paris in 1848 of a French father and a Peruvian-born mother who was the daughter of the notorious Flora Tristan, a socialist writer whose husband was sent to prison for attempting to murder his wife eighteen years after their formal separation. From this side of his house must have emanated many of the characteristics of emotions that were to motivate Gauguin throughout his life. He seems always to have been restless, his gaze forever out-reaching him. When he was a youth he satisfied his wanderlust by entering the merchant marine and, subsequently, the French Navy. But in a few years he wearied of great stretches of sea and sky even punctuated, as they were, by halts at colorful ports in every corner of the world. He decided to give up the sea and enter a stockbroking firm. Here he prospered so quickly that marriage with a young Danish girl soon became possible.Then painting entered his life—first as a Sunday occupation but abruptly, one day, as an all-consuming passion. The life-long struggle against poverty, hunger, ill-health, and despair began. The years were distributed between Paris, Brittany, Martinique, and Tahiti; between Paris, Brittany, and Tahiti again, with the final act being played out in a jungle hut in the Marquesas islands one day when Gauguin was found dead in his bed by a native.But the life which so often seemed sordid and frustrated produced something great in the end, and it is comforting to think that many times during its course Gauguin not only glimpsed but experienced deeply the particular strange ideal toward which he climbed so painfully. The assurance that he did so emerges from his, much of which could not have been had Gauguin not savored, at whatever long intervals, the harmonious and beautiful existence of which he dreamed.Referenced Works of Art
- I Raro Te Oviri (Under the Pandanus). Detail. By Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903. Dunwoody Fund.
- I Raro Te Oviri (Under the Pandanus) by Paul Gauguin. A work of the first Tahitian period painted in 1891.