Saturday, May 7, 2011

Paul Gauguin - The Myth Maker - Noa Noa

Gauguin traveled to Tahiti for the first time in 1891to set-up his "studio of the tropics".  He was trying to find a way out of the 'civilized' materialist culture of Europe to a more primitive, preindustrial way of life that is linked to nature.  After viewing the Colonial Exhibits in the Exposition Universelle of 1889, where he was exhibiting his Breton paintings at a cafe nearby, he must have found the paradise he was dreaming of for a life of "ecstasy, calm and art." He chose to go to a French colony in hopes of the government funding his trip and being able to communicate in his language.

Noa Noa, which translates as fragrance, is Gauguin's diary and novel of his experiences on his first stay in Tahiti. It includes information about his paintings, Tahitian culture, religion and daily life, and use of the native language. It is mostly a diverse collection of preconceived notions, photos, brochures and plagiarized  works of others.  By including native language Gauguin hoped to establish a sense of authenticity for his French audience who wouldn't know that he had made many grammatical errors.  Peter Brooks mentions in his essay "Gauguin's Tahitian Body" that Gauguin arrives on the eve of the death of King Pomare V and in his book, Noa Noa, chooses to portray the passing of the king as the final extinction of Maori culture.1 In fact the Maori culture had been demolished from one hundred years of colonialism but Gauguin wanted his audience to think he had found what he had imagined he would find before he left France.

Paul Gaguin, Nave Nave Fenua
(Delightful Land), 
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Gauguin included 10 woodblock prints with his book Noa Noa, to give his audience a sense of what the place was like.  He used what he called authentic materials, and where he cut into the wood, he left rough areas in the background.  This was his way of embracing, idealizing and creating the concept of a way of life that was primitive and premodernity.  

In his woodblock print Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land), Gauguin tries to evoke woman as Eve before she falls from grace, where she has no shame. Gauguin's Eve is brown and thick rather than the European ideal alabaster body with the S curve, but she stands frankly, in an exotic, sensuous setting, the growing flowers referring to the Garden of Eden.  Although Peter Brooks accepts that depiction of the Maori female body is a myth created by Gauguin for a French audience, he still argues that Gauguin is actually criticizing the traditional, academic ways of depicting the female nude under the guise of classical themes like his contemporaries were doing. 2

The Abstract patterns that can be seen on the left side of the print are Gauguin's invention from things he had seen, probably at the Exposition Universelle, that actually had nothing to do with the Maori culture.

Gauguin uses his book, Noa Noa to create the myth of a primitive paradise that offers the colonizing white male, women as 'gifts' in a 'Tahitian Arcadia' that actually matches the European concept of what Tahiti was all about.

1  Peter Brooks, "Gauguin's Tahitian Body," 334
2  Ibis. 335

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