Teha’amana & The Paul Gauguin Brand
Paul Gauguin was as much an author as he was a painter. Throughout his career he sought to cultivate and hone the telling of his personal story as much as he worked to express a visual vocabulary that was entirely his own. From his early paintings of Breton women working in the fields to the Tahitian series for which he is known, Gauguin worked to paint a world he wished to exist – it was a world oversaturated in colour, simple in form, and full of the mythology he believed the real world lacked.
Gauguin was born in Paris to a French father and a Peruvian mother. When he was almost two, the family moved to Peru. Gauguin’s father died during the crossing. The family was left to fend for themselves upon arrival. They returned to Paris a few years later, and Gauguin dabbled in his schooling before leaving to join the French Navy at the age of 17. His tragic beginnings, his romantic and mysterious life in Peru, and his adolescent travels across the world with the Merchant Navy all became threads of the almost mythic story he would weave for himself throughout the rest of his life.
Upon his return from the navy, Gauguin took a job as a stockbroker, began making a very comfortably salary, and settled down with his new wife, Mette-Sophie Gad. They had five children, and Gauguin made enough money that not only could he paint in his spare time, but he could also afford to buy the work of emerging artists. It was through the latter that he met Camille Pissaro, who in turn introduced Gauguin to his contemporaries. Gauguin reveled in this life, and deeply enjoyed its benefits: visiting Pissaro in his garden and studio to examine the artists’ work; and occasionally painting with Cèzanne. However, following the stock market crash of 1882, Gauguin, now newly impoverished, decided to turn his back on the world of finance, and to pursue a career as a painter instead. His early work was mixed in its quality, and after his wife moved to Copenhagen with his children, Gauguin decided to sail to Tahiti in a symbolic resignation from the European lifestyle, which he deemed to epitomize “everything that is artificial and conventional.”
Four Breton Women, Paul Gauguin, 1886
There can be little doubt that Gauguin’s arrival in Tahiti was disappointing. After all, he had gone to “live on fish and fruit”, and what he found was
“that European missionaries had been at work for a long time before he got there, and so, instead of luscious young Tahitian girls, he found women dressed up to their necks in smocks, attending church every Sunday”.
Gauguin’s reaction to his discovery is telling: he ignored what he saw and painted instead what he desired. Just as in his early work, he drew heavily on the influence of Folk Art and depicted bucolic scenes, which were more representative of myth than they were of reality. Tahiti provided a ripe backdrop for Gauguin. He filled the otherwise unremarkable with the verdant images of his imagination.
Teha’amana was one of Gauguin’s regular models during his time in Tahiti, and she was even his “native wife”. The latter is an unfortunate title, which speaks to the Colonial practice of taking a wife as a form of concubine. The objective nature of this relationship is further emphasized by the Tahitian practice of referring to such wives as simply “vahine”, or “women”. Teha’amana is the sitter for the portrait Merahi metua no Tehamana and she is thought to be the model for Gauguin’s famous Spirit of the Dead Watching.
The pair of paintings Merahi metau no Tehamana and Spirit of the Dead Watching offer insight into the lens through which Gauguin saw his surroundings. In both paintings Teha’amana is painted with a calm and passive expression. She is the subject of both the paintings and the stories that Gauguin wished to tell.
Spirit of the Dead Watching Paul Gauguin, 1892
Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1865
Spirit of the Dead Watching is often compared to Manet’s Olympia. The latter is frequently cited as an almost daring depiction of a woman in control of sexuality – Olympia’s confident outward gaze, her brazen display of her body, and her indifference to the trappings and gifts sent by her suitors. Gauguin’s could rather be classed as Olympia’s antithesis: Teha’amana is prone on her stomach, her hands raised by her head, and her gaze half-shielded from the viewer. She does not proper herself up and present herself as Olympia does, she lays flat, watched over by a hooded figure in the background. In Olympia, the servant who stands behind her holds flowers and stares quietly and respectfully at her mistress. In Spirit of the Dead Teha’amana is caught between her watcher in the background and her painter in the foreground.
Merahi metau no Tehamana (Tehamana and Her Ancestors), Paul Gauguin, 1893
In Merahi metua no Tehamana she is arranged, doll-like, in starched western dress against a background designed to depict her primitive roots. The royal blue stripes and blade-like fan are contrasted by the background of soft glyphs and a crude painting of a nude female figure. The background almost argues that despite her appearance and her dress she can never be separated from the primitive culture into which she was born. The idea is in keeping with Spirit of the Dead Watching, where Teha’amana is shown against a similarly primitivist background. Gauguin suggests there is some fundamental link between this exotic culture and his female subject, as though she is nothing more than a vessel, a sort of symbol or shorthand for the mythology of the island. There is an air of condescension in the work as though the crude glyphs, their smeared yellow tones, and the nude female are a natural state, which have been momentarily civilized by the addition of clothing for her modesty and a fan for the tropical climate. Gaugin’s addition of mangos, undoubtedly a play on the trope of fruit as a symbol of fertility, rings hollow – the mango is not indigenous to Tahiti and was actually introduced to the island from Asia in 1848.
The local population tolerated the practice of taking native wives because it afforded financial gain and social advancement for any women selected by European colonists. For the colonists, the wives were helpful in the gathering of foodstuffs and for their local knowledge of the island. Through a modern lens the practice is both objectionable and cold but it is clear that there is a “quid pro quo” element to it, which makes Gauguin’s depictions of his life, in his memoir Noa Noa all the more ridiculous.
Noa Noa was a travelogue, which Gauguin wrote during his time in Tahiti. Gauguin wrote the book with the hope that it would provide his audience with a broader context in which to view and interpret his work. However, Gauguin took a similar amount of artistic license in his literary works as he did in his artistic endeavors. Bengt Danielsson, an anthropologist, who spent a great deal of time researching various Tahitian cultural and societal practices managed to turn up a fair amount of damning evidence, which contradicts Gauguin’s stories of his life on the island. Teha’amana’s education by Christian missionaries would have afforded her little to no knowledge of local mythology, which would make it difficult for her to recount the legends of her culture to Gauguin in bed. Furthermore, upon Gauguin’s departure in 1893, Teha’amana married a local man, and refused to move in with Gauguin upon his return in 1895 due to his syphilitic sores.
Ultimately, Gauguin’s Tahiti and his native wife offer an intriguing example of the power of personal mythology. The paintings from this oeuvre are not only among the most valuable but they are also the most iconic. Gauguin is not remembered for Breton women going about their work in wimples, he is remembered for his enigmatic and primitavist paintings. He is remembered as a traveler, an intrepid adventurer, an artistic explorer. If anything, Gauguin laid the groundwork for the idea that a piece remains inextricably connected to and influenced by its maker – the very interpretation and symbolism dictated by the life and story of its author.