Paul Gauguin’s paintings from the Pacific Islands are probably his most recognizable images, unless you are into art. The vivid reds, yellows, purples and somewhat draped women have created images, which permeate popular media a hundred years later. Gauguin would like to have some royalties from the advertising industry that uses his techniques.
The National Gallery of Art currently has an exhibit on Gauguin: Maker of Myth. The curators bring together paintings, block prints, wood carvings and ceramic creations from Gauguin’s early portraits to his late Pacific Island scenes, tracing the theme of how he used myth to select his subjects, and how he generated his own mythology.
His early images from Paris, Denmark, and Brittany contain many Christian themes. He often used his own likeness for characters ranging from Christ to the Devil. Was this the expediency of needing an inexpensive model, and looking in the mirror was sufficient? Or, did he see himself as an every-man character ready to take on the messages of religion? Whatever the motivation, his brightly colored paintings did not usually meet the appreciation of either the local country folks or the art dealers in Paris. Gauguin decided to seek more exotic scenery, and he sailed to Tahiti.
He discovered quickly that the tropical, primitive island living that he expected did not exist. He blamed the French colonization and Christian missionaries for spoiling the innocence that he expected. However, he went about corrupting the island life himself, while he fabricated spirits, gods, and gardens of Eden. He started a cycle of painting this mythology and deriving more mythological ideas from his paintings.
While neither his painting style nor his mythology gained acclaim during his life-time, his use of color and portrayals of Pacific Island woman as voluptuous, dark, mysterious, and naked have become archetypes for our age. The travel industry especially uses these fantasies to entice us to tropic destinations, where our desires will be fulfilled by beautiful, gentle, scantily dressed women.
Maybe what is more telling is not what Gauguin intended in his art or even his made-up mythologies, but what we read into what we view. Is his work social and cultural exploitation? Is his work a beautiful portrayal of a desired lifestyle? Does he touch on the universal truths embedded in the stories of world regilions? Is his work an intellectual’s rationalization for a little T & A? The answer may be less important than the question.