Paul Gauguin's famous guise as the original Western savage was his own embellishment upon reality. No mere bohemianism, that persona was, for him, the modern sequel to the "natural man" constructed by his idol, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Gauguin's rejection of the industrialized West for an earthly paradise embraced, in artistic terms, all handmade arts and crafts as equivalent creative endeavors. As his own ideal artist-artisan, he produced an abundant, cross-fertilizing body of work in many media, dissolving the traditional boundaries between high art and decoration. Full Bio
Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil), 1892
Lured to Tahiti in 1891 by reports of its unspoiled culture, Gauguin was disappointed by its civilized capital and moved to the countryside, where he found an approximation of the tropical paradise he had expected. The Tahiti of his depictions was derived from native folklore supplemented by material culled from books written by earlier European visitors and overlaid with allusions to western culture. The pose of the standing nude, for instance, is derived from a medieval statue of the biblical Eve and more distantly from the Venus Pudica of classical sculpture. The artist placed this rich combination of references to original sin, the loss of virginity, and occidental standards of beauty and art within the context of his Tahitian mythology and primitive, non-European aesthetics.
The meaning of the title Parau na te Varua ino is unclear. The phrase varua ino, evil spirit or devil, refers to the masked kneeling figure and parau means words, suggesting the interpretation "Words of the Devil." The meaning of many of Gauguin's Tahitian paintings remains elusive. There is little likelihood that Gauguin's original audience would have been able to interpret the Tahitian legends that Gauguin carefully inscribed on most of the sixty-six paintings he took back to Paris in 1892.
Fatata te Miti (By the Sea), 1892
Like Parau na te Varua ino, Fatata te Miti was painted during Gauguin's first trip to Tahiti. Its setting, in fact, is quite similar. The two paintings share brilliant pink sands and vividly colored accents, the brilliant fringed blossoms of the phosphorescing hutu, and on the left the same unusually shaped tree. These similarities point to Gauguin's use of "documents," the term he used for sketches and working drawings that he would incorporate into many paintings and prints.
Their similarities invite us to compare the two works, and in other respects we find they are quite different. Where Parau na te Varua ino is densely symbolic, this painting is a more straight-forward depiction of life on the island. One woman removes her pareo to join a companion already plunging into the sea for a swim. Nearby a man fishes with a spear. The intense, tropical colors—hot oranges and cool blues—convey sensual delight. This is the effortless and uninhibited paradise that Gauguin had hoped to find in the South Seas. Little remained of this life, however, by the time Gauguin reached Tahiti. Polynesian culture had been transformed by western missionaries and colonialism, and the ancient religion replaced by Christianity. Gauguin wrote and illustrated a manuscript about Polynesian mythology, but most of what he knew about the island gods came from previously published sources.