Paul Gauguin was a French post-Impressionist artist. Unappreciated during his lifetime, Gauguin is now regarded for his experimental use of color and Synthetist style. He is best known for his paintings of French Polynesia, where he lived during the last ten years of his life. Gauguin’s artworks, including Seed of the Areoi, portrayed the French Polynesian islands and explored the meaning of human existence, inviting viewers to share in his idealized view of the islands, unspoiled by the problems that were plaguing his home country at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.
His painting, Seed of the Areoi, depicts his ties to Tahiti, portraying one of his Tahitian mistresses as the goddess Vairaumati. In this article, Singulart explores the reason’s behind Gauguin’s move to to French Polynesia, how his work contributed to the post-impressionist movement, and explore the controversy that surrounds Seed of the Areoi to this day.
Seed of the Areoi– From France to Tahiti
There was nothing in Gauguin’s early life that would suggest he would eventually become an artist. Born in Paris in 1848, his family fled to Peru when he was three years old due to the tense political climate in France, and the fact that his liberal journalist father’s newspaper had been seized by the French authorities. After returning to France four years later and spending his childhood in Orleans, Gauguin joined the merchant marine at seventeen, going on to join the French Navy.
Upon his return to Paris in 1871, he started a job as a stockbroker, although he started painting as a hobby, producing works such as Still-Life with Fruit and Lemons. He was enjoying a salary of around thirty thousand francs, but the collapse of the French stock market forced him to consider another avenue of work. At this point he turned to painting as a career, though it meant he had to live apart from his wife, Mette-Sophie Gad, and their five children.
Although his early training led Gauguin to paint in an impressionist style, a trip to Brittany in 1886 provided a significant turning point for his style. He began to explore the symbolism movement, inspired by the colors of Brittany and using the Breton people as inspiration for his work. His art captured the attention of Vincent van Gogh, and the two began a correspondence, sending paintings to each other for critique and eventually spending nine weeks working alongside each other in Arles.
This period would have a profound effect on Gauguin. Effectively abandoning his wife and family, he spent the remainder of his life traveling the French Polynesian islands. Tired of the ever changing nature of Europe, he chose to travel to places he felt were untouched by civilization, such as Tahiti, writing, “I was captivated by that virgin land and its primitive and simple race; I went back there, and I’m going to go there again. In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.”
In 1895 Gauguin set off to reside permanently in Tahiti. Although he had moved to his ideal location, Gauguin was plagued by issues such as self-doubt, following a barrage of negative reviews in Mercure de France. He was also suffering from syphilis, increasingly dependent on morphine to relieve his symptoms.
When Guaguin passed away in 1903, the local priest on the island wrote “The only noteworthy event here has been the sudden death of a contemptible individual named Gauguin, a reputed artist but an enemy of God and everything that is decent.”
Gauguin, Seed of the Areoi, and ‘Primitivism’
In his artwork inspired by his time in Tahiti, Gauguin demonstrated the beginnings of what is sometimes called the primitivism movement. Primitivism refers to an art movement of late 19th-century wherein European artists appropriated various elements of the aesthetics of non-European ethnic groups and communities. Gauguin is widely considered as the inventor and propagator of this trend. In his paintings, Gauguin appropriated Tahitian motifs that he observed while in French Polynesia. The term primitivism itself describes the racist ideology embedded in the movement: the artwork of racialized communities was already throught to be less advanced or developed than the artwork of the Europeans who were appropriating it.
Art historians link primitivism to the Age of Discovery, wherein a certain distrust and dislike of new technologies, caused artists such as Gauguin and Picasso to romanticize the artwork of other cultures such as Japanese and Chinese art, artwork from various African communities who were then under French and British colonial occupation, and in Gauguin’s case, the artwork of Tahitian culture. In their opinion, these art styles provided a new way of painting, something radically different from the Renaissance one-point perspective.
Similarly to John Constable, who used his countryside paintings to portray an idyllic landscape, the art of the primitivism period sought to capture a time when humans were supposedly more connected with nature and with each other. This is particularly evident in Gauguin’s artworks, exploring an era of sexual freedom, seen in paintings such as Spirit of the Dead Watching. While the French Polynesian islands where Guaguin resided had their share of poverty and sickness, Gauguin instead chose to portray a land of lush, fertile grounds and used imaginative elements to represent the islands as a pure, untouched land.
It is not just the subject matter of Gauguin’s paintings that suggest primitivism, but also the style of painting: heavily influenced by Japanese artists’ use of un-modulated color and imagined landscapes, Gauguin employs the use of flattened decorative effects, and the figures depicted in his work were a reference to the art he had seen during his time in Tahiti and Hawaii (and to a lesser extent, primitive artworks he had seen in his hometown in rural Brittany). He stated, “I am trying to put into these desolate figures the savagery that I see in them and which is in me too… Dammit, I want to consult nature as well but I don’t want to leave out what I see there and what comes into my mind.”
Gauguin’s “primitive” works have received particular criticism, as it has been argued that he is viewing this so-called primitive society through a white male colonizer’s point of view. This viewpoint is supported by the fact that Gauguin engaged in non-consensual relationships with several young Tahiti women, the youngest being just thirteen years old.
Seed of the Areoi
Seed of the Areoi depicts Gauguin’s mistress Tehura as the goddess Vaïraümati. According to legend, the god Oro enlisted his sisters to help him find a suitable bride. The sisters saw Vaïraümati bathing in Vaitape, on the island of Bora Bora, and told Oro they had found him a wife. Oro would regularly descend upon earth to see Vaïraümati, and was so happy with their life together that one night he flew across the sky in the shape of a flame and turned Vaïraümati into a goddess. Vairaumati would then give birth to a powerful chieftain, creating the Areoi tribe.
In Gauguin’s depiction, Vaïraümati sits naked holding a flowering seed, a symbol of fertility. It has been suggested that by portraying his mistress as Vaïraümati, Gauguin sees himself in the place of Oro, the war god. In an early self-portrait painted in Brittany, Gauguin represented himself in a position that evoked Jesus on the crucifix. Gauguin also appropriated elements of ancient Egyptian art to portray Vaïraümati, specifically her straight posture combined with the choice to paint her face turning three-quarters towards the viewer, similar to poses seen in Ancient Egyptian artworks. Japanese art has also influenced Gauguin’s use of flat colors, as well as the relative absence of light and shadows.
While the bright, bold colors used in Seed of the Areoi are complementary – the yellow of the trees set off against the purple of the mountains, with natural tones interspersed throughout – they were still considered quite shocking for the time. Speaking of his inspiration, Gauguin explained, “…the landscape with its bright, burning colors dazzled and blinded me… it was so simple to paint things as I saw them.” The use of color in this painting leads credence to the argument that Gauguin was painting a stylized, idealized version of the islands, using colors that were nowhere to be seen in nature.