Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Watching by Gaugin

Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch by Gaugin (1892)

Paul Gaugin – Part 3 (Conclusion)

 Today I am concluding my look at the life of Paul Gaugin.  My earlier blogs on February 23rd and February 25th looked at the early and middle part  of Gaugin’s life and should probably be read before you begin today’s offering.

We had reached 1887 and left Gaugin desperately wanting to leave France and head for Panama where he believed he would be able to lead a worry-free lifestyle.  He and his artist friend Charles Laval set sail in April of that year and before reaching Colon in Panama the ship weighed anchor off the island of Martinique.  They eventually arrived at Colon and Gaugin was disappointed not only with the area but also that his plea to his brother-in-law for financial assistance was turned down.  Gaugin and Laval now had insufficient money to return to their newly chosen destination, Martinique.  It was then imperative that they found the funds from another source to pay for their proposed sea passage and so they worked on the construction of the Panama Canal.  The French had made the first attempt to construct a sea-level canal in 1880 under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps who had been involved in the construction of the Suez Canal some twenty five years earlier.  Gaugin and Laval finally accrued enough money for their trip to Martinique in June.   The Gods however didn’t look favourably on the two intrepid artists for whilst on the island of Martinique both Gaugin and Laval were extremely ill suffering from bouts of malaria and dysentery.  The pair returned to Paris in November 1887.  Despite his illness during his sojourn on Martinique, Gaugin believed his short time on the island was a defining moment in his life.  He wrote enthusiastically about it in a letter to his wife, Mette, in February 1888:

“…you must remember that I have a dual nature, the Indian and the sensitive civilised man.  The latter has disappeared [since my departure], which permits the former to take the lead…. the sensitive man has disappeared, which permits the Indian to forge resolutely ahead…”

Although he did not complete many paintings whilst at Martinique due to illness, what he brought back to Paris was remarkable and well received.  Gaugin lodged once again with the Schuffenecker family in Paris and struck up a friendship with Theo van Gogh, who worked as an art dealer for his family business at the Goupil Gallery.  Theo took on Gaugin on the strength of these Martinique works of art.  Theo’s brother Vincent van Gogh invited Gaugin to join him in Arles so that together they could set up and artistic colony and art institution which Vincent termed “A Studio in the South”.  Gaugin was disinclined to join Van Gogh on this project but Theo paid him to go to Arles to keep an eye on his brother.  In October 1888 Gaugin travelled south to Arles and stayed with Vincent van Gogh in the Yellow House.  The two artists were incompatible and within two months, and after many violent arguments, Gaugin left Vincent and returned to the Schuffenecker household in Paris.  Of his disagreements with van Gogh, Gaugin wrote in a letter that December to a fellow artist, Émile Bernard:

“….Vincent and I don’t agree on much, and especially not on painting….. He is romantic, whereas I, I am more inclined to a primitive state…”

 Van Gogh and Gaugin had a different philosophy to their art.  Van Gogh liked to have the subject he was painting in front of him whilst Gaugin preferred to paint from visions in his mind.  Once again we see Gaugin talking about his alter ego, that of him being the primitive man.

By 1889 the curse of wanderlust struck Gaugin again and this was heightened by his visit to the Exposition Universelle, the World Fair held in Paris that year.  Within the exhibition there were many stands highlighting the beauty and opportunities of the overseas French colonies.  Gaugin believed he could set off for one of these far-flung territories along with some of his artistic friends and set up a Studio of the Tropics.  Initially Gaugin favoured going to the French colony of Tonkin, which is now part of Vietnam or maybe go to Madagascar but finally he decided on Tahiti. Another reason for Gaugin to leave France could well have been that his preferred art dealer, Theo van Gogh,  who had managed to sell many of his works, suffered a mental breakdown and  died suddenly in January 1891 and with him went Gaugin’s main source of income.

In March 1891 Gaugin finally had agreement with the French government to sponsor his trip to Tahiti and in return for a reduced cost of the sea passage, he would record the customs, landscape and people in his paintings of the French colony.  Before he set sail he went to Copenhagen to see his wife and children and unbeknown to him at the time, it would be the last time he sees them.  Gaugin set off from Marseille on April 1st and arrived in the Tahitian port of Papeete on June 9th.   The Tahiti that Gaugin finds was not the Tahiti he had envisaged.  This was not the land of plenty which the Exposition Universal had described.  Tahiti was a down-at-heel French colony and Gaugin believed the native Tahitians had been ruined by missionary zeal.  What he had expected to see just did not exist.

His first works after he settled in Papeete were portraits of Tahitian women demurely dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes but the demand from France was paintings of the pure full-blooded naked primitive native women.  They neither wanted to see depictions of the missionary-converted women, nor did they want to see the mixed race women, the product of their parents’ relationship with passing sailors.  Gaugin decided that if he was to find the true spirit of Tahiti he must move out of the colonial capital of Papeete and so along with his young mistress he went to Mataiea and away from the colonial influence of the capital.  He now felt much happier and in a letter to George-Daniel de Montfeid, the French artist, art collector and biographer of Gaugin, he wrote:

“…I am now living the life of a savage, walking around naked except for the essentials that women don’t like to see (or so they say)…”

Gaugin remained in Tahiti but his lack of money and hand-to-mouth existence was affecting his health and he became depressed and hankered to return to France but the Governor of the Island refused to let him leave.  In the spring of 1893, he sent a number of his Tahitian paintings to de Montfreid to be exhibited and sold.  In the autumn of 1893 he finally managed to leave the island and returned to Paris where he fully expected to be acclaimed a hero for all the Tahitian works of art he had sent home.  His works were exhibited at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris and although they were well received by critics, sales were disappointing.

In the spring of 1894 he revisits Pont Aven with his very young Javanese mistress.  Gaugin had returned to this artist colony, not as a respectable gentleman artist but as the uncouth primitive savage, a persona which he had developed during his Tahitian stay.  His constant fornication with very young and under-age girls earned him a certain notoriety and his heavy drinking bouts often lead to fights with the locals and on one occasion his ankle was shattered causing him to be laid up for more than half a year.  In early 1895 he received his come-uppance for his unrestrained debauchery over the years when he was diagnosed as having contracted syphilis.  He is completely disillusioned with France and he sold as many of his paintings as he could and left the shores of France for the last time and headed back to Tahiti.

Life back in Tahiti was not kind to the ageing artist.  To his great disgust, the country had become more modern.  His health was slowly but steadily deteriorating due to the onset of the symptoms of syphilis.  His financial situation worsened and in 1897 he suffered a series of heart attacks. He also received the sad news from his wife Mette that his daughter Aline had died of pneumonia in Copenhagen, at the age of 20.   In the early months of 1898, in a moment of complete despair, he went into the mountains and attempted to kill himself with arsenic.  It does not kill him but badly damaged his internal organs and he had to be often hospitalised to stabilise his condition.  More bad news from home was to follow as his third and favourite child, Clovis, died in 1900 aged just 21.

In 1902 he moves from Tahiti to Atuona on Hiva-Oa in the remote Marquesas Islands where he died the following year of syphilitic heart failure, just a few weeks short of his fifty-fifth birthday.

My Daily Art Display featured oil on burlap painting today was completed by Gaugin in 1892 during his first stay in Tahiti and is entitled Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Watching and is housed at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.  Manao tupapau is the spirit of the dead.  The painting is a mass of colour, the yellow blanket, the black and gold valance and the phosphorescent greenish sparks on the violet background, which exaggerate the creepy atmosphere.     This is a highly atmospheric and sensuous scene, full of mystery and foreboding.  Fear emanates from the painting.  Gaugin explained his thought process when he painted this picture:

“…I have made a nude of a young girl… who is a Maori. These people traditionally fear the spirits of the dead… I must explain this fear with as few of the time-honoured literary devices as possible… there are a few flowers in the background but… as they only exist in the girl’s imagination… I make them like sparks… finally I have made the ghost just a plain little woman, for this girl… can only picture the spirits of the dead as looking like the person who has died…”

Gauguin in choosing the face-down pose of the young naked girl knew it could be highly problematic when it was seen by the French public and of course it was these very people who would be the potential buyers of his art.    He must have been fully aware that his depiction of the young girl would strongly hint at lovemaking, which had just occurred or was about to happen.  It is interesting to note that very few paintings up until then depicted the naked body of a woman lying down.  The one well-known exception was probably the Reclining Girl by François Boucher (My Daily Art Display, May 30th 2011).   Not to be detracted from his desire for that pose Gaugin probably then decided to incorporate the “spirit of the dead” theme with the fear that came with it, so as to add some gravitas to the work.

We need to understand the thought process of the Tahitians when it came to life and death.  The Tahitians divide their day into two halves: daylight, or ao, and darkness, or po.  With po they associate the tupapaus, and therefore they fear the night.   The tupapaus are the Tahitian personifications of the spirits of death.  For the Tahitians they are a genuine and permanent threat to them and they associate them with the darkness of night.   The Tahitians are so afraid of them that they never go out of their homes at night without a light, and even with a light they never venture out alone. They always keep their homes lit at night, so as to ward off the tupapaus.

Before us we see a young dark-skinned Tahitian female as she lies naked, face down on her stomach on top of a bed with a stray tendril of her jet-black hair lying across the pillow.  She is probably in her early teens, Gaugin’s age of choice for his mistresses.  She exudes an abundance of sexuality. Her body retains some of the “puppy fat” of a young female.  There is firmness to her limbs and buttocks and a definite seductiveness about her pose, which of course was all in the mind of the artist.    Her body is stiff as if she dare not move an inch for fear of the repercussion of so doing, although one can imagine that inwardly she is shuddering with fear.  She is terrified by the presence of the hooded spirit of death with its averted phosphorescent-coloured eye, which we see sitting crouched at the foot of the bed.  For the young girl, death was not a strange occurrence as  European ships and the sailors  brought to the island diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, scarlet fever and tuberculosis for which Tahitians had little or no immunity.  Add to this the weapons the sailors brought with them to the island to ttrade for food and which provided the natives with a much more effective killing machine during local rival confrontations.  She has witnessed death through disease and local confrontations many times over and by his depiction of this scene and despite its exotic colouring, Gaugin is, in a way,  commenting on the fragility of Tahitian life.

It is as if the spirit is keeping a vigil at the foot of the bed.  Maybe the girl believes the spirit has come to take her to the “next world”.  Native Polynesians believed that the phosphorescence of the light was the spirits of the dead.  The hag-like spirit with bulbous lips is seen in profile and the face and eye reminds me of Ancient Egyptian drawings of women.  The hand of the evil spirit lies menacingly on the bed.  In this case the spirit is the embodiment of an old woman dressed in a black shawl but for the frightened girl she is probably the embodiment of a dead relative who may have come for her.   In his 1901 book entitled Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin, Gaugin recalled the incident.  He had just returned home unexpectedly late one night.  The room was in darkness.  He struck a match and saw his wife, Tehura……

“…immobile, naked, lying face downward on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear . . . Might she not with her frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?…”

It is a remarkable painting and for me the story behind it adds to its appeal.

That ends my look at Gaugin and his life and I wonder what you think of him as a man and as an artist.  The two are quite different.  Such differences between the personality of a person and the quality of what he or she  produces have always existed and still do nowadays.  So should we just take in and enjoy what Gaugin has produced and put to the back of our minds his way of life and his proclivity for sex with under-age girls or is that just too difficult?  By compartmentalising Gaugin’s lifestyle and Gaugin’s art work, are we simply justifying the unjustifiable?

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

1 thought on “Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Watching by Gaugin”

  1. No, I don’t think we are justifying the unjustifiable. First of all, “under age” is a legal term, which means different things, depending on where one is. I don’t think Gaugin was guilty of rape, and I don’t think he forced the girls to follow him against their will. I think their relationships were completely consensual. (Of course, we now don’t consider a girl that age as being able to give her consent, but I don’t think in Tahiti, at that time, those girls were considered “under age.”)
    As far as the dichotomy between his personal life and his obvious genius, I don’t think it is an issue. Very often people who are not disciplined, or even behave recklessly, are capable to produce great work. Not only artists. (Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio, for example, had been convicted of killing a man in a fight and died on the run.)
    I think Gaugin, and a lot of other creative persons with a troubled personality, find lucidity, purpose and a sort of stability in the creative process; even though the creative process is not always smooth. So, no. I don’t think the work of these people should be discounted because sometimes they behaved despicably.
    L>

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