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Paradise Found

The ideal(ized) vision of Paul Gauguin.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By DANIEL ROSS GOODMAN
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The centerpiece here may be the gorgeous Mata Mua (In Olden Times; 1892). It is, unfortunately, cast off into a corner and should have been displayed in a more prominent position. Nonetheless, it is stunning to see in person. The light and dark greens, squash yellows, bell-pepper oranges, tomato reds, and eggplant purples are a feast for the eyes. In Mata Mua, Tahitian women dance, play instruments, and worship a statue of Hina, the Tahitian moon goddess. The women frolic in a lush, idyllic landscape in the foreground, while purple mountains protruding out of an off-white sky loom over them in the background, and a large cross-shaped bluish-gray tree (the Tree of Life in this Tahitian Eden?) centers the canvas. 

What may be most interesting about Mata Mua is that, even though the Polynesian religious ritual is the central subject matter, Gauguin limits the scene to the left corner of the painting and places the cross-shaped tree squarely in the center, subtly reminding us of Gauguin’s abiding interest in Christianity.

In fact, despite his fascination with Polynesian religion, and his dissatisfaction with Roman Catholic doctrine and institutional religion, Gauguin remained interested in Christianity and the Bible. Biblical themes and Christian motifs recur throughout his work, but are often melded into an artistically scintillating Christian-Polynesian syncretism. And his preoccupation with Polynesian religion is evident in the majority of works on display. Gauguin incorporated the Polynesian moon and earth gods into several of his artworks, and was fond of depicting Polynesian worship rites. Yet he was disappointed to find that this traditional faith was almost entirely expunged by Christian missionaries, who purged the island of graven images. Gauguin used pigments, prints, woodcuts, and his own imagination to reconstruct these religious sculptures, most notably in Mata Mua and in Oviri, the foreboding sculpture of a Polynesian goddess entirely out of his own mind.

Of course, Gauguin experienced his own paradise lost when he arrived in Tahiti and discovered that it was not the unspoiled paradise of his imagination. Many of his paintings depict not what he actually saw but what he had wanted to see. Mata Mua is Gauguin’s vision of paradise. He created the pristine world he wanted to experience, rather than the fallen one he had to experience. It’s a “romantic, idealized, but ultimately false” vision of Tahiti, say the MoMA curators; but though Gauguin’s vision of Tahiti was objectively false, it was entirely true in the realm of Gauguin’s imagination. And from the perspective of artistic surrealism, nothing could have been truer than Gauguin’s Tahitian Eden.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and rabbinical student in New York. 

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