Les Fantômes d’Empire: 'Vanishing Paradise'

Paul Gauguin's In Olden Times (Mata mua) (1892)

Art historian Elizabeth Childs' new book on Paul Gauguin and John La Farge shows us how the colonial imagination contributed to the exoticism associated with Tahiti and the South Seas.

Vanishing Paradise: Art and Exoticism in Colonial Tahiti

Publisher: University of California Press
Length: 352 pages
Author: Elizabeth C. Childs
Price: $49.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-05

Paul Gauguin is one of those painters who enjoyed something quite rare in the vagaries of art history and the market—sustained popularity. From his first exhibition in Paris in 1880 with the Impressionists, to his most fertile period of activity in the late 1890s in Tahiti, and up until his death at the age of 55 (brought on by syphilis and morphine addiction) in the Marquesas Islands, Gauguin was a figure of notoriety and wonder. His paintings were popular among collectors for their immediate sensuous appeal. As an artist and hedonist, he fascinated a host of writers, including W. Somerset Maughm and Irving Stone, and he was depicted on screen by Anthony Quinn and Kiefer Sutherland. Gauguin’s fame seemed to predict the rise of the other celebrity-artists who came after him: Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons.

The Gauguin we immediately think of is not the Gauguin of the Pont Aven school in Brittany (though those paintings are both ravishing and unsettling in their symbolism and religious longing), but the Gauguin of the South Seas: the heady, intoxicating color of his island paintings, the solidity and sensuality of his women, and his spirit of defiance in rebelling against all that was bourgeois and conformist in 19th century French society. Tahiti fascinated many artists and writers over the years so that when Gauguin first arrived on the island in 1891 he came with a precise set of preconceived ideas. Elizabeth Child’s book, Vanishing Paradise, examines those ideas and the lure of Tahiti in the colonial imagination.

Childs is a professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis. She has co-authored several books on Gauguin, as well as a brilliant catalogue to a show at the Yale Art Gallery in 2010 on the American painter John La Farge and his voyage to the South Seas in 1890. Vanishing Paradise consolidates much of Childs’ previous work and expands on new themes in relation to what Tahiti meant to artists and writers, like Gauguin, John La Farge and Henry Adams.

Over the course of seven chapters, Childs explores the history of Western contact with Tahiti and the loaded concept of the exotic on the occidental imagination. The lure of the Pacific for many Europeans began with Captain James Cook and the accounts of his travels to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii in the 1770s. Cook’s descriptions were both of wonder and admiration and also terror and disdain for the islands’ native people.

The beautiful, natural splendors of the land and the warmth of the people couldn’t be reconciled with local practices like offering young women to visiting European sailors as concubines, or rites of human sacrifice. Before Cook, the 18th century French explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville traveled to Tahiti in 1766 and claimed the island for France calling it, La Nouvelle Cythère, New Cythera, after the island of love where the Greek goddess Aphrodite was born. From then on, Tahiti became shrouded in myth as the embodiment of beauty, pleasure and danger nestled in the tropics.

Vanishing Paradise gives the reader a richer understanding of Gauguin’s later work and the work of John La Farge in Tahiti through a knowledge of relevant historical and social information. We can understand what would have influenced these artists in their ideas and approach to painting, but not any specific details about their choice of materials, such as Gauguin’s occasional use of jute or burlap for his oil paintings because of their availability, or La Farge’s preference for airy watercolors. Though Childs takes us through a wonderful descriptive analysis of Gauguin’s hypnotic 1892 painting Te matete (The Market), with its hieroglyphic Tahitian women in their bright Mother Hubbard dresses (the loose gowns the Christian missionaries made the women wear for modesty).

Paul Gauguin's Te matete (The Market) (1892)

It’s not so easy to tell at first, but the five young women seated on a bench in a busy food market surrounded by fruit and fresh fish are actually prostitutes. Two of them (the one in green and the one in red) carry health permits enforced by the Papeete police. Gauguin plays off of the wry notion of the marketplace and what can be for sale. He also mocks colonial pretensions and arrogance at forcing customs and habits on native populations. The ties to ancient Egyptian art and the intensely flat, stark lines and surfaces of painting, and its very theme, remind me of Picasso’s iconoclastic Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), another painting about prostitutes and the unknowability of the primitive.

Elizabeth Childs uses excellent examples of various illustrations, paintings and photographs of Tahiti that contributed to this idea of exoticism: the famous 18th century prints and wallpaper of tropical South Seas landscapes by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and Joseph Dufour—what would have been a mainstay in fashionable Parisian homes, a playfully sanitized painting of islanders canoeing by the 19th century Euro-Australian painter Nicholas Chevalier, and late 19th century photographs of Tahitian locals and chieftains by Charles Georges Spitz. These are only some of the notable examples that highlight Childs’ assertion that the image of Tahiti to 19th century artists was heavily coded in imperialist ideology.

Two chapters towards the end of the book are memorable for their in-depth look at both John La Farge and Henry Adams and their trip to the South Seas in 1890 and 1891. Both give us a keen psychological imprint of who these men were. Though intoxicated by the island, they were Yankees to the core and were evidently more prim and repressed than Gauguin. Inspired in part by the adventure tales they’d read by Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, La Farge and Adams ventured to Tahiti in search of beauty and enlightenment, to experience a world that was vastly different from Gilded Age society. They were a bit disappointed to see a sleepy, but fairly settled colonial encampment of missionaries and tradesmen and native people dressed in European clothes. “Nothing remains but the same charm of light and air which Melville, like all others, has tried to describe and to bring back home in words,” La Farge bemoaned. “Everything conspires for getting some definite record just before the last veil closes over a past already dim enough.”

In his desperation to document the vanishing landscape of the island, La Farge produced a series of lush watercolors and paintings as well as several sketches and notes. It’s curious to me that the Tahitian women La Farge depicts have features that seem distinctly un-Tahitian. Gauguin’s women by comparison are more authentic and reflective of what Tahitian and Polynesian women really look like. La Farge’s women look more like Angie Harmon than Q’orianka Kilcher.

John La Farge's Women Bathing in Papara River (1891)

Vanishing Paradise gives us a rich insight into how the colonial imagination contributed to the exoticism associated with Tahiti and the South Seas. We sense it even now every time they do a revival of South Pacific with that cornball, pseudo-mystical song, “Bali Ha’i” playing through the theater, or in every tikki-themed bar or hotel scattered across the country. How does one separate the fantasy of the tropics from what’s really there?

I was intrigued that Childs mentioned that one of her teachers and sources for this book was the renowned Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson, a pioneer in the studies of Oceania and the author of an influential 1965 book on Gauguin. In 1947, Danielsson and the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl and three other men sailed out in a balsawood raft across the Pacific towards South America. Their aim—to prove that people of South America had settled the islands of Polynesia in pre-Columbian times and to debunk the prevailing theory that the islands had been settled from the west. Their harrowing voyage has since been turned into a 2012 Academy Award-nominated film, Kon-Tiki.

I can’t recall when I’ve been so enthralled by a book about 19th century art. Elizabeth Childs’ Vanishing Paradise is an exhaustive, beautifully written account of colonialism in Tahiti and its enduring influence on art in the West. Its studies of Gauguin and John La Farge provide a remarkable resource for both scholars and art enthusiasts who want understand more about the long and varied history of the island and the mystery it held for artists. The book is without a doubt an essential go-to source for students of Gauguin, and especially, of John La Farge.

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