Woman with a fan: Paul Gauguin's heavenly Vairaumati--a parable of immortality.

Author:Hargrove, June
Position:Essay - Critical essay

I work a bit like the Bible, where the doctrine is pronounced in symbolic form, presenting a double aspect ...; it's the sense literal, superficial, figurative, mysterious of a parable.--Paul Gauguin to Andre Fontainas, August 1899 (1) Paul Gauguin arrived in September 1901 in the Marquesas Islands, where he died at the age of fifty-four in May 1903. Despite deteriorating health during this period, he was remarkably productive, achieving some of his most technically assured and subtly enigmatic paintings. Although these works are mentioned in the modern literature on Gauguin, their presence is commonly invoked to expose the gendered and colonialist attitudes prevalent in his day. (2) If they are described, the emphasis is on their Arcadian beauty rather than their potential content.

Gauguin's symbolism in his late paintings has been given scant attention in part because he himself confused the situation by claiming to repudiate literary explanations, consequently discouraging efforts to probe this work for complex nuances. Just as Gauguin fled Europe but could not escape Paris, he sought to abandon narratives but had recourse to words. The artist strove to generate a mode of pictorial abstraction, analogous to music, with nonrepresentational elements transmitting the painting's emotional harmonies. The viewer's experience kindles subjective responses that intermingle with layers of meaning couched by Gauguin in the ambiguous terms of a parable. Gaining insight into Gauguin's artistic quest in the final months of his life not only opens new perspectives on the art of his Marquesan period, it also sheds light on his impact on artists of the next generation. (3)

This essay stems from a larger project concerning the art that Gauguin produced in the Marquesas Islands, but it focuses on one painting in order to explore the tension between meaning and abstraction in his late use of symbolism, a dialectic fundamental to fin de siecle modernism. Woman with a Fan (Fig. 1) is typically presumed to be the depiction of a young Marquesan woman devoid of symbolic import. (4) Nonetheless, the image begs further investigation. The figure sits at an awkward angle in a chair distinguished by its oddity. The fan, which she holds more like a scepter than a fashion accessory, bears a striking targetlike ornament. The glowing color of the woman's skin set against a golden ground imbues her introspection with luminous majesty. While no known text by Gauguin refers specifically to this painting, the artist wrote extensively on his art and his faith at the time he realized it.

The following argument uses a combination of visual and verbal clues to identify the subject of the painting as the deified Vairaumati, the mortal wife of the god Oro, who rose to the heavens as his consort. Thus identified, Gauguin's depiction of a central figure of a Maori myth can be seen to frame his intertwined aesthetic and spiritual beliefs. The archetype for his successive versions of Vairaumati, starting in 1892, remains the painting Hope by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, which illuminates the role of transposition in their evolution. The premise of transposition is the linchpin of Gauguin's creative process, which demands unfettered freedom to achieve true originality. The principle of artistic liberty, which he believed to be his greatest contribution to the future, is elicited in this canvas by an emblem inseparable from the 1789 French Revolution: the blue, white, and red rosette on the fan. These diverse constituents converge in Woman with a Fan, which can be read as his ultimate meditation on the creative process.

Woman with a Fan asserts the late symbolism of Gauguin as a porous matrix that allows constellations of associations to coalesce, dynamic alliances instead of a fixed set of signs. Its expressive character is driven by the slippage between motifs. The musical paradigm that he embraced led him to seek polysemous correspondences in his imagery. For Gauguin, the mutability of the figure's pose becomes synonymous with the soul's reincarnation, transforming Woman with a Fan in the person of Vairaumati into a parable of immortality, conflating his artistic and spiritual convictions.

Rift with Art Critics

Gauguin's love-hate relationship with the Parisian literati took a turn for the worse in the early 1890s, with the accusations of Emile Bernard that Gauguin had robbed him of credit for initiating the Symbolist style. This precipitated a number of author-critics, notably, Felix Feneon and Camille Mauclair, to denigrate Gauguin as a peintre-litteraleur (painter-writer), dependent on the poets of the Symbolist milieu he frequented. Gauguin mounted his own campaign to advocate the artist's right to dispose of his sources and inspiration at will. He challenged the pervasive authority of art critics and castigated them for their misguided opinions about the merits of his accomplishments. Motivated by his desire to put painting on a par with poetry, he retaliated with art geared to counter their attacks. (5)

Gauguin's growing animosity toward critics was a factor in his disillusionment with France that prompted his return to the South Pacific. To legitimate his independence from literary prototypes, he asserted the abstract nature of his art, which has been construed to obviate symbolic references. Like other of his contemporaries, he borrowed concepts from music to validate his abstractions. (6) Among his statements to this effect are those in letters written in 1899 to Andre Fontainas, editor of the Mercure de France--his conduit to the Paris scene. The exchange was precipitated by the poet's critique that the painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? was impossible to decipher without its title. Gauguin replied that his goal was to paint the equivalent of "a musical poem, [that] needs no libretto." (7)


By privileging the musical character of painting, Gauguin prioritized its emotional thrust. Although this has the effect of muting the resonance of his content, he did not eschew meaning. After admonishing Fontainas, "you had thought, wrongly, that my compositions ... proceeded from an idea, a priori, abstract that I sought to embody by a plastic representation....," he clarified his method. "I work a bit like the Bible, where the doctrine is pronounced in symbolic form, presenting a double aspect ...; it's the sense literal, superficial, figurative, mysterious of a parable." (8)

Gauguin's writings are filled with heuristic remarks on the ideas encoded in his art. "If a work of Art were the product of chance," he admitted, "all these notes would be almost useless." (9) Anticipating the pioneers of the twentieth century, he declared, "emotion first! comprehension afterward." (10) The dichotomy between these two statements exposes the contradictions that animate Gauguin's struggle at the end of his life to quell his critics.

Retreat to Marquesas Islands

The Marquesas Islands were so named in 1595 by Spanish explorers in the service of the viceroy of Peru, only to be forgotten until Captain Cook's expedition of 1774. They are magnificent, with their high volcanic peaks plunging into narrow valleys and beaches of black sand. A distance of 800 miles northeast of Tahiti, the archipelago was annexed to French Polynesia in 1842. Contact with Western culture proved disastrous for the native population; ravaged by diseases and alcohol, the inhabitants dropped in numbers from an estimated 50,000 to 18,000 by the time the territory became French, to around 3,500 in Gauguin's day. (11) The Marquesan culture, known for the quality of its carvings and decorative arts, fared little better. Most of the important surviving art objects were already in the hands of the collectors, missionaries, anthropologists, and dealers who scoured the South Pacific in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The vestiges of this sculptural tradition were found in artifacts made for the European trade. (12)

The Marquesas had intrigued Gauguin from early on in his first Polynesian stay. Perhaps the archipelago's distant connection with Peru, the locus of his own childhood and family origins, held some primal appeal for him. (13) The remoteness of the islands fueled his notion of them as a more "savage," more authentic Polynesia, where life would be cheaper and simpler. (14) His admiration for Marquesan art was apparent in his early Tahitian works, and he reiterated his appreciation in writing throughout his years in the South Pacific. (15)

On his return to Oceania in 1895, Gauguin again contemplated living in the Marquesas, though he would not act on this inclination for another six years. (16) If not an outright pariah to the French colony in Tahiti, he had few friends, and he exacerbated his precarious position through a brief but vituperative newspaper career. The search for his elusive utopia, his naive certitude that life would be less expensive and easier in more remote regions, played into his decision to pull up stakes for the Marquesas. Thanks to a stipend from his Paris dealer, Ambroise Vollard, he had enough money to secure his modest livelihood. And possibly the move was a way to extricate himself from his journalistic activities in order to devote his remaining days to making art. He announced in July that he was "moving ... to ... a still almost cannibalistic island in the Marquesas.... There, I feel, completely uncivilized surroundings and total solitude will revive in me, before I die, a last spark of enthusiasm which will rekindle my imagination and bring my talent to its conclusion." (17)

On September 16, 1901, he steamed into the village of Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa, where the welcome was so inviting that he impetuously decided to stay. In November, he was able to move into his house, which he christened the Maison du Jouir. He was joined by the fourteen-year-old Vaeoho Marie-Rose, who left him in...

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