The Story Behind Gauguin’s Biographic Noa Noa
On the 8th of May 1903, the iconic French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin died in Atuona, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia. In 1891, Gauguin sailed to French Polynesia allegedly to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. As a record of his travels, he ended up writing a book titled Noa Noa describing his experiences in Tahiti. In past decades, more and more allegations by modern critics point to the fact that the contents of the book were fantasized. (Cotter, Holland. “The Self-Invented Artist”. The New York Times. Retrieved 9 December 2010.)
It turns out that Gauguin’s move to the islands was a bit of a last resort in the artist’s life. It came as a result of very bad fortune in his working and personal life. By 1890, his long-suffering wife Matte had thrown him out and several dealers dropped him. He owed many people money and was constantly looking for new finance enhancing opportunities. So, in 1891, when he had the chance to travel to Tahiti to paint illustrations for the most popular novel of the day, Pierre Loti’s The Marriage of Loti, he welcomed it without hesitance. Moreover, he staged his departure in a dramatic way, throwing a dinner party for the Parisian literary and artistic elite, explaining how he needed this break from civilisation and the unfettered contact with the primitive living conditions on Tahiti to reconnect with his creative genius.
The reality of it was, of course, an entirely different matter: Mowll Mathews, author of Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life (2001) wrote how, “He portrayed the natives as living only to sing and to make love. That’s how he got the money from his friends and raised the public’s interest in his adventure. But, of course, he knew the truth, which was that Tahiti was an unremarkable island with an international, Westernised community.” In the sexually liberated Tahiti, Gauguin found his muse, in fact, a series of ‘muses’ who kept him company in what was to become a self-indulgent series of erotic adventures with questionable protagonists, some of them young girls. Gauguin painted the island and its inhabitants with the eyes of a pseudo-native, all the while though intending to wow the French audience back home. The expected success never came when he returned two years later to Paris, so he resorted to writing Noa Noa, very much an erotic autobiography aimed to raise his popularity.
“Despite his self-imposed exile in Polynesia from I89I, Gauguin continued to play an active role from afar in the Paris art world, maintaining correspondence with important literary figures, subscribing to periodicals, and writing cryptic explanations to accompany paintings back to Europe.’ From the outset, he imagined his transferal in terms of its potential impact on a Western audience and, once settled, he continued to rely upon European publications to resurrect indigenous myths and deities. Noa Noa, a partly autobiographical fiction evoking his paintings and experiences in Tahiti, was a key text in this endeavour to manipulate his critical reception. Later revised in collaboration with the Symbolist poet Charles Morice, the first draft of Noa Noa (hereafter denoted the Draft MS) was completed following Gauguin’s temporary return to Paris in September
I893, and possibly intended to complement an exhibition of his Tahitian paintings at the Durand Ruel Gallery in November I893, though it was not completed in time. Combining descriptions of his paintings with tales of adventure and references to Polynesian myth, it was less an accurate record of Gauguin’s life, than a carefully staged encounter between the European and the ‘exotic’.”(Linda Goddard, ‘The Writings of a Savage?’ Literary Strategies in Paul Gauguin’s “Noa Noa”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 71, 2008). Here is a concluding excerpt from the book, presumably capturing a moment of nostalgia for lost romances:
“As I left the quay, at the moment of going on board, I saw Tehura for the last time. She had wept through many nights. Now she sat worn-out and sad, but calm, on a stone with her legs hanging down and her strong, lithe feet touching the soiled water. The flower which she had put behind the ear in the morning had fallen wilted upon her knee. Here and there were others like her, tired, silent, gloomy, watching without a thought the thick smoke of the ship which was bearing all of us–lovers of a day–far away, forever.”
His formally innovative Tahitian paintings contain a symbolism, the genuine quality of which has long been questioned. These works, alongside the literary and illustrative artistry of Noa Noa (photographs, watercolors, clippings, drawings and woodcuts), seemed in fact engineered to create a career and personality-saving package by the artist himself. The truth behind Gauguin’s Tahitian self-exile was far more raw than he would have liked his audience to believe. As Amelia Hill of The Guardian bluntly put it: “Paul Gauguin, renowned for his paintings of exotic idylls and Polynesian beauties, was a sadist who battered his wife, exploited his friends and lied to the world about the erotic Eden he claimed to have discovered on the South Sea island of Tahiti. The most exhaustive study ever of Gauguin’s life Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life has revealed a brutal man who falsely cast himself as a creature of exotic sexuality, a defender of women’s rights and a bastion of socialist ideals.” (Amelia Hill, Gauguin’s erotic Tahiti idyll exposed as a sham, The Observer, Sunday 7 October 2001). He perished in this paradise as a lonely and sick man without a family, friends and oblivious to the enormity of his legacy to the art world.