By Stephen Bugno
Paul Gauguin was born in Paris and moved to Peru at age three where he lived for four years. In his teens he was a sailor. In his twenties, a stockbroker in Paris and Copenhagen. At one point Gauguin took a job on the Panama Canal which lasted only two weeks. This was followed by a stay on the Caribbean island of Martinique—a place he would return again “to live as a savage”.
In 1886 he moved to a small town in Brittany to focus on his art. He went for the Celtic influence, the agrarian lifestyle, the cheap accommodation, and to find “the wild and primitive”. But Brittany proved too touristy for him.
The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris stimulated his already keen interest in world cultures. Exhibits of Vietnam, Madagascar, Java, Cambodia, and Tahiti mesmerized him. Travel literature and journals of the day—often with colorful and romanticized tales—also amplified his enthusiasm for travel. French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had characterized Tahiti as “the happiest society that exists on the globe.”
In 1891, when Gauguin arrived in Tahiti he was disgusted by the French colonial influence. French buildings dotted Papeete. Disease and alcohol brought by Europeans had decimated the population. Local religious rituals were made illegal. He even witnessed the death of the last Tahitian King. “Tahiti is becoming completely French,” he lamented. “Little by little, all the ancient ways of doing things will disappear.” Later, he would move further out to the Marquesas Islands, where he would eventually live his last days.
By the end of his life he had spent the better part of his years on earth traveling to far off lands looking for paradises—primitive places not yet corrupted by civilization. Each time he ventured further beyond, going to more remote places in Europe, the Caribbean, and Polynesia to search for “the origins, humanity in its infancy.”
Each time he was disappointed. Everyplace was different than the paradise he had conjured up in his mind. He had envisioned lands where people lived simply, freely, and without inhibitions. Reality was something other.
In his art, Gauguin painted what he wished he saw in these exotic locales, instead of the reality of the place. Admitting to himself that the Tahiti he had envisioned did not exist, he simply created this lost paradise in his art. Tahitians, who were now covered in modest European smocks after missionaries arrived, were displayed shirtless by Gauguin. Easter Island inspired statues that did not exist in Tahitian landscapes were added. Architectural designs inspired by the Maori of New Zealand were also painted in to some of his creations.
Fast forward to 2011, the world, in all its recent changes is in many ways very similar to Gauguin’s world. Globalization is the new colonialism. And the Imperialists who were once empires are now multi-national corporations.
Traveling in this age, we also risk disappointment. If we set off on our journey with such expectations—foreseeing paradises or idealizing the exoticism of the places we are about to travel to—we are bound to be disappointed. Does embellished travel writing and tourism promotion do more harm than good? Or is it the reader and potential consumer, who takes these words and images and fabricates his or her own inflated expectations, to blame?
With too many pre-conceived notions we risk spoiling that place and disappointing ourselves.
Gauguin’s painting exposed the sense of loss for the mythical paradise that he did not find. Travelers are still searching for this today and writing about it.
The exhibit Gauguin: Maker of Myth runs the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until June 5th, 2011.