Paul Gauguin. Figure Tahitienne circa 1892-3. Height 10 5/8 in. Wood. Inscribed with the monogram PGO (at the bottom)
HUAHINE - During his first visit to Tahiti (June 9, 1891 - June 14, 1893) Gauguin fell under the spell of the legendary beauty of Tahitian women. Upon his arrival, he drew a set of impressive portraits charged with nobility. These drawings on paper have a sculptural depth. The faces, like masks, bear a profound mysticism, they express the same feelings of melancholy and depth. Many represent a psychological state known among Polynesians as “faaturuma", resignation. Tahitians, during moments of solitude or while posing for a painter or a photographer, express a mood that represents a kind of melancholic twist to meet the universe of the "tupapau" (spirits of the dead). In this dream while awake, the Polynesian observe the present through the prism of the past.
The sculpture (see photo above) with the eyes half shut illustrates a mood unknown to Westerners. Gauguin enters here his first feelings for Tahiti. He is seeking «ecstasy, peace and art » and finds only silence, the torpor of tropical nights on an island where nothing much happens. «Lately, my mood is getting somber» he wrote to his wife Mette.
The same expression can be seen on prints of contemporary photographers of Gauguin in Tahiti (Charles Spitz, Henri Lemasson…). The artist actually drew his inspiration from his collection of photographs. Namely the paintings "Pope Moe" in 1893 (Wildenstein 498), "Teha'amana", 1893 (W 497), "Portrait of Women" 1899-1900.
The facial lines are of exceptional beauty.The work is in a heavy root of iron wood Casauarina equisetifolia. The great quality of this wood carving lies in its primitive power. Only the head of the Tahitian, her long hair, a breast and her hand are shown. In a letter dated May 1892, he wrote: « I have 11 months of work done, and I have 44 fairly large canvases… some drawings and sketches… and a few carvings ». This sculpture was certainly included in this inventory. Among his acquaintances where the settler Bambridge and the lawyers Auguste Goupil and Léonce Brault, also a printer. All three appreciated Gauguin’s work and his strong character.
The years 1891-92 are difficult, the painter is hospitalized and in dire need of money. In his letters, he talks about his local sales. Bambridge commissioned the portrait of his wife, Goupil buys the “Te matete“ fan of 1892 and a wooden mask representing a Tahitian lady. This sculpture is now lost. In 1903, while searching for remnants of Gauguin’s works in Tahiti and the Marquesas islands Victor Segalen saw it and sketched it. Léonce Brault had probably acquired the carving from Gauguin at that time. But this date is not confirmed as the painter maintained a close relationship with this friend until his death.
In 1900, the lawyer Léonce Brault published his satirical newspaper "Les Guèpes” (The Wasps) after having subscribed to its very insolent periodical "Le Sourire“ (The Smile“). In 1903, Gauguin lived in the Marquesas Islands and picked Brault, as his lawyer for his appeal trial after his condemnation based on false accusations. Constantly in conflict with the colonial and religious authorities on the island of Hiva Oa, he revealed contraband and prostitution trafficking by the gendarmes with the crews of American whaling ships calling at the Marquesas Islands. He also opposed acts of the governor to defend unfairly taxed natives. All these accusations assured him to be sentenced in court. He had full trust in Brault to rehabilitate him during the appeal procedure. This case affects him very much, « it’s killing me » he writes to Henri de Monfreid. He died on May 8, 1903, before the trial could be held. His last known letter is to his lawyer, to whom he explained his line of defense.
The hieratic pose and the power of the flow of hair in the sculpture is reminiscent of the androgynous aspect of the Oviri ceramic of 1894: hair pulled to the back, position of the breast and the hand on the side. It is known that the “Oviri” plaster has been molded from a wood carving (now lost). This carving is in a line similar to that of “Oviri”, it is a model study (see the “E haere i ae, hia”, 1892 painting that inspired the final "Savage" carving. The similarity of the «primitive and savage attitude» is evident.
The poet Charles Morice, Gauguin’s correspondent in Paris at the end of the 19th century, known not to be too rigorous with the chronology, noted similarities between Rodin’s "Balzac" (1898) and "Oviri". In a recent study on ceramics, Anne Pingeot also refers to this resemblance. Thus this sculpture brings an even more convincing link to the Balzac bronze and offers new evidence. Rodin presented his "Balzac" at the Salon of the Society of Fine Arts in 1898 when Gauguin had already returned to Oceania. Rodin may have seen Gauguin’s drawing of this carving and “Oviri”. Up to now, no known document or testimony does bring light to the mystery of the remarkable similarities between the 3 works.
This carving is a major work of Gauguin, mostly important for a better understanding of his enigmatic "Oviri" masterpiece. It also is a new document for the study of the similitude between Rodin’s "Balzac" and Gauguin’s "Oviri".
Gauguin’s Tahitian sculptures are very rare. Less than 20 of this importance are known of. Most of them are from the former collection of Daniel de Monfreid. They are now in French museums. The discovery of this carving will excite the world of curators and collectors. Even the important correspondence of Gauguin from Tahiti, there is still “shadow” for the understanding of his work. This carving is a new piece in the puzzle of the Tahitian sojourn.