When Paul Gauguin died on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in 1903, he was buried in an unmarked grave. It seems odd that an artist of such renown would be treated with such apparent indifference in his death. After all, Picasso is buried in a French Chateau, Cezanne was buried in the Saint-Pierre Cemetery in Aix-en-Provence, Renoir was buried in a familial site in Essoyes. So, in 1921 local residents of the island selected a lot in the cemetery to act as the artist’s grave. And more than fifty years later, the grave was adorned with a bronze replica of Gaguin’s sculpture “Oviri.” This burial site now stands as the most prominent tourist attraction on the entire island.
While Gaugin’s “grave” may bring some sense of closure to his life story, there is still a mystery surrounding the inspiration for his famous South Sea paintings. Most recently, the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition “Gauguin and Polynesia” has proposed a potentially inflammatory theory that involves the interplay between the paintings and the island cultures. The show, created by a team of specialists in European and Oceanic art and orchestrated by the Art Centre Basel, was designed to “bring Gauguin’s paintings and sculptures face to face with a large number of Polynesian cult and art objects.”
This show follows several other past exhibitions that have also sought to resolve and explain the facts and fantasies surrounding Gauguin’s work in the islands. The Grand Palais in Paris organized “Gauguin Tahiti” which was subsequently shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2004. Then, the Tate Modern in London organized “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” which was later shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 2011.
The creators of “Gauguin and Polynesia” have argued that: “past exhibitions have addressed Gauguin’s involvement with other cultures in a fairly superficial way,” no doubt sparking some controversial sentiment. In particular, Stéphane Guégan, curator of the Musée d’Orsay, believes that the Grand Palais show overemphasized the artist’s disillusionment with Polynesian life and culture, while the Tate show, in his opinion, was created by historians who look unfavorably upon Gauguin, portraying him as an unscrupulous miser. Guégan’s primary issue with these past exhibitions does not center upon their focus, it lies with what he believes they neglect. According to Guégan, Gauguin’s serious intention was to investigate the South Seas as “a terrain of anthropological as much as aesthetic research.”
Gauguin’s devotion to anthropological research is a matter “Gauguin and Polynesia” addresses directly. Unlike earlier exhibits, in which Pacific objects and artworks are presented as mere pictorial background for Gauguin’s evolution as a modern European painter, the intention in Seattle is to place these pieces “at the heart of the exhibition.”
The show displayed about 60 pieces by Gauguin—paintings, sculpture and works on paper—preceded by a wide range of 18th and 19th century Polynesian sculptures, carvings, ornaments, tools, jewelry, and more. By juxtaposing these two galleries, the exhibition promises “new insights into the relationship between Gauguin’s art and Polynesian art.”
Visually, the show was hailed as a strategic success. The Polynesian objects were distinctively powerful counterpoints to the paintings, which seemed somewhat redundant and even formulaic at times. Historically, however, the relevance of the Polynesian objects is based upon a fairly large assumption—that Gauguin not only encountered each of them, but understood their meaning and function. This is highly improbable. By the mid-19th century, Christian missionaries in Tahiti had banned native cultural practice such as carving and dancing, and thereby outlawed the decorations and accoutrements those practices entail. When Gauguin arrived in the islands in 1891, there was barely any traditional art still around. And when the artist moved to the Marquesas, the islands were practically uninhabited.
Of course, Gauguin did encounter some level of Polynesian objects during his lifetime. The effect these pieces might have had on his artwork, however, remains a mystery. One of the show’s organizers maintains: “Polynesian works of art served Gauguin more as symbols and decorative accessories and less as influences on his style. Such references, in a few paintings and some sculptures, occur more rarely and often more incidentally than his allusions to non-Western courtly forms such as those of Egypt, Persia and especially Cambodia and Java.” Still others, like Carol Ivory and Marie-Noelle Ottino-Garanger, both specialists in Oceanic art, maintain that Gauguin and the Polynesian colonies he inhabited did not truly intersect on any significant level.
The sculpture of “Oviri” that the locals placed upon Gauguin’s “grave” was actually one of his most terrifying creations—a nude female with bulging eyes, a gigantic head, and tiny legs, standing with a snarling wolf at her feet and holding two wolf cubs in her hands. No one has ever resolved what “Oviri” actually is, whether it is some sort of Tahitian goddess, demon, or spirit, and Gauguin never left any explanation. But maybe that is how he wanted it. Much of his work has centered around the mystery of the imagination. Bizarre and enigmatic, the effect is always surreal, leaving the viewer in a state of awe. So when all is said and done, it seems only right that we are left in a nebulous state of uncertainty, continually pondering the meaning of his art, from every subjective point of view.