Victor Segalen, author of the enigmatic novel René Leys, is now celebrated as a writer who wrote primarily about China, but he also played a significant part in the posthumous rise to fame of the artist Paul Gauguin, whose Tahitian works (including his underrated sculptures and prints) are currently on show in the exhibition Gauguin l’Alchemiste at the Grand Palais. Gauguin died at Hiva-Oa (Dominique), one of the isolated Marquesas islands about 1300 kilometres from Tahiti, on 8 May 1903; Segalen, then a young Navy physician stationed in Noumea, reached French Polynesia in June in the vessel Durance just in time to save some of the painter’s sculptures and goods, which were being auctioned off as junk items at Papeete. For a derisory sum (especially in view of the amounts now being paid for original Gauguins) Segalen purchased some important last paintings, including the haunting vision of a Breton village in the snow. He also spoke to some of the people who had known the artist—still a controversial figure on the islands (where some of his descendants live), not least owing to his virulent criticism of the colonial administration and church. Segalen’s notes were published as “Gauguin dans son dernier décor” a few months after he left Polynesia in the gazette Mercure de France. Jamie James’ recent book The Glamour of Strangeness (FSG, New York, 2016) has excellent chapters on both Gauguin and Segalen, and their quasi-anthropological attempts (un “malgré-moi de sauvage”) to understand the nature of the exotic.
It was a plush pall of a backdrop, a fit setting for a dying man. Magnificent and sad, somewhat incongruous, its hues were the illumination and commentary on the distant last act of an errant life. But the afterglow of Gauguin’s strong personality in turn lights up these surroundings, the place he chose to make his last home—brings it to life, fills it to overflowing. It does so to such an extent each aspect of what was a single overarching vision can be scrutinised: Gauguin the leading man, his native supporting cast, the scenic props.
Gauguin was a monster. What I mean is he can’t be pigeonholed into any of the moral, intellectual or social categories which serve to define most individuals. For the crowd, to judge is to label. You can be a respectable merchant, upright judge, gifted painter, poor but honest, a well-bred young lady; you can be an “artist” or even a “great artist”. But it’s already a step beyond the pale, and quite unforgiveable to be something other than that; since classification requires a cliché and none is at hand. Gauguin was a monster then—utterly, domineeringly. Some people are exceptional in one sense only, around which fixed point all their vital forces seem to bustle; in all other aspects of their daily life (keeping house, doing the social rounds, sense of duty) they’re likely to be quite conventional and ordinary. It’s a matter of temperament and physical constitution. A magnificent, frenzied writer may have the build of a skinny sexton; genius doesn’t rule out a seemly, modest exterior, a life of business and appointments. Gauguin was none of those: in his final years he seemed to be an ambiguous, pain-wracked man: full of good intentions yet thankless; willing to aid the weak, even when they didn’t ask him to; haughty and yet offended like a child by people’s opinions and reproof; primitive and coarse; he was changeable, and in everything, extreme.
That was the artist. Now his abode, which was really just his stage set. A frugal stage set which, in the imposing natural decor, strikes a restrained, harmonious note. Reddish-brown, braided with foliage, the roof sweeps down in two long slopes over the yellow inner wall, itself plaited with mats and vegetation, and blends in perfectly with its surroundings; a crude, unsophisticated but sturdy frame fashioned from natural materials anchors it to the grassy soil. Opposite, a short staircase leading up to the raised floor, a small simple cottage shelters a dried clay model, worn away by the rain. Here we should stop, since it is a divine effigy, and the ancient rites call to mind the Prayer of the Stranger:
I have come to this place where the earth is alien beneath my feet.
I have come to this place where the sky above my head is new to me.
I have come to this earth which will be my dwelling-place…
O Spirit of the earth, the Stranger offers you his heart, for your nourishment.
Clearly it represents one of the ancient but vaguely defined atua; but as a product of the artist’s myth-expounding dreams, it is a strange composite. The posture is like a Buddha’s, but the full lips, protruding, unslanting, close-set eyes, the straight nose barely wider at the nostrils, are native traits: it is a Buddha born in the land of the Maori. Gauguin took pleasure in dressing up the heroes of Polynesian myths in all kinds of hieratic poses. For that, he could only take himself as guide, since the Polynesians refrain from making images of their gods. They are by no means unfamiliar with the art of turning wood or carving colossi out of lava or red sandstone, but what they make is restricted to symbols, tabernacles or tomb images. The Marquesan Tiki, whom they do not worship, essentially sat at the ends of the known world, and at best were lowly deities. Only the missionaries were pagan enough to believe in the anthropomorphism of the natives, and talked them out of worshipping the ‘gods of wood’. Tangaroa the Creator, like Yahweh, had no idols, but an ark and a tabernacle.
Beneath the statuette, there is a title and some verses in Gauguin’s hand:
The gods are dead, and Atuana dies of their extinction.
The old sun which warmed him once lies prone
In a sad sleep, where dreams flare and die.
What is now the tree of regret stands in Eve’s eyes
Who, pensively, smiles at the sight of her breast,
Sterile gold sealed by the divine intent…
Now the house: a tiny bedroom leads into the studio, the entire gable flooded with light. But the ornamental portal catches the eye. It is encircled by stark rough-hewn scenes with explanatory inscriptions and buffed with matt colours. The caption reads Maison de Jouir. On either side there is a panel with a procession of blue-lipped amber figures in convulsed or indolent poses, with golden lettering that reads:
Women, be in love and you will be happy
Be mysterious and you will be happy.
Then two silhouettes of female nudes, crudely outlined like those in a prehistoric painting. Lastly, two canvases directly affixed to the wall itself.
One of them shows a band of natives with languid gestures advancing across a bright indigo background. The earth they walk on is brown ochre, almost red. A man carrying wild bananas is heaving a cross-pole laden with luxuriant reddish-brown clusters on to the crook of his neck; and the girls with the olive-toned copper bodies, wrapped in green and yellow fabrics, linger in intimate poses. I don’t care for the second.
In the studio is a jumble of native weapons, an asthmatic little old organ, a harp, odd bits of furniture, and only a few paintings, since the artist had just made a final dispatch. Nonetheless, he had kept a highly accomplished work from his earlier period: a self-portrait as a man of sorrows in which a powerful upright torso is set against a backdrop of what look like wayside crosses. Thickset body-frame, pendulous lip, heavy eyelids. A date, 1896, and the bleak epigraph: ‘Near Golgotha’. Another portrait of different composition, undated and unsigned, seems closer in time and detail, with its off-centre figure, again sturdily built, and of haughty bearing. Centrepiece of the studio is the most intriguing work of all: three women at rest, one of them crouching. The woman on the left, who is carrying a maiore fruit in a typically Polynesian way, is seen from behind, half-turned, the weight of her body on her right leg. The second, legs folded beneath her, is suckling a child. Painted in a simple broad style, both are unmistakably Tahitian in expression. The third stands apart, in a pose similar to those cherished by Puvis de Chavannes. The whole scene is depicted on a backdrop divided into earth and sky: dark green soil, a radiant pale green sky, a sky lulled by the evening and blending with the poses of the three slow figures.
And, in a final paradox in this land of light, the work for which the dying man reserved his ultimate brushstrokes: a chilling view of Brittany in winter—glints of snow melting on the thatched roofs under a low sky overcast with clouds and scored by thin trees.
Gauguin didn’t die as a leper. There’s no point in listing the diseases he succumbed to, for they alone were not the cause of his demise, and were worsened by fatal struggle, by setbacks. Puerile battles wore down this magnificent fighter with trivial machinations and “legal” defeats which he, the pure artist, took so strangely to heart. As if he had fallen from grace. As if human justice could sully those whom genius raises to the rank of Outlaw, without title, beyond the law!
Gauguin’s native supporting cast was a soft mull of pale slender Marquisans, their faces striped with bluish lines making the eyes look deeper set and the mouths out of proportion; etched into their clear skin were tattooed symbols, each design formerly attesting to a feat of arms. Gauguin the coryphaeus intoned the lament and reproach, and his docile chorus concluded the antistrophe. Many followed him without understanding why, these giant children who had to weigh their tongues with Semitic or Latin roots, dead letters to them, in order to get around our customs. A few inflamed him with false counsel; other natives were decent and faithful. Besides, it would be rather otiose and ridiculous to talk of lack of morals in a setting where an English neologism stands in for the word shame; in which the word and the sentiment behind it have little to do with sexuality; in which virginity is a myth expressed by a Greek name, sexual fidelity a contradiction in terms, unselfish love a huge unlikelihood and woman an exquisite animal. A civilised animal, it has to be said, since she intersperses her lovemaking with hymn singing, breaking off to list our French departments (plus sub-prefectures).
What did these child-beings give to Gauguin? Their splendid forms, which he “dared to deform”. Also motifs, warm amber notes to be sounded out across the humid blue shimmering of the atmosphere; unctuous flesh with lustrous reflections upon which golden patches shimmer when the sun is at its highest. And finally attitudes, in which he delineates the Maori physiology, which may express their entire philosophy. He never looks beneath the beautiful envelope for the improbable kanak soul: when he painted the natives he was a painter of animals.
Finally, the enactment. “Present time, island of Hiva-Oa, district of Atuana.” Panoramic backdrop: a straight vertical drop down to a pleasant valley in among the massive rockface scored by thin metallic waterfalls, its summit permanently decked by a lazy horizontal bar of clouds which flattens the serrated peaks. The islands are named after these jagged edges: Grand Crest, Crest on the Cliff, Crest on the Crag. Their walls are studded with corpses which the natives honour by burrowing them into hiding places so hard to reach they might almost be in the air. Pillars of the set: valleys boxed in right and left by mountain buttresses as far down as the shore where the sea hems them in too with its crests, its breaking crests. Here there is no protecting reef, that comforter of lifeless ocean beaches. Here the sea is vital, pounding, eroding. The ocean swells into the bay, thunders up the yellow or black sands, and takes the course of the lava runnels spat out by the volcanoes that long ago became extinct.
And this unyielding perimeter encloses a tangle of green slabs, ochre-coloured palms quivering in the wind, branch on branch of colonnades holding serried blossoms to the light. The sound of water is everywhere, bursting down mountains, soaking the soil, snaking along riverbeds of worn pebbles. Everything is alive, bursting into the warm scents of summers hardly ever struck by drought, everything except the human race. They are dying, those pale slender Marquesans. Without sorrow or wailing or protest, they are wending their way to their coming doom. Again, what’s the point of abstruse diagnoses? Opium has wasted them; alcohol has rotted them with the novelty of drunkenness; tuberculosis has hollowed out their lungs; syphilis has left them sterile. What are all these things if not the different manifestations of that other scourge: contact with the ‘civilised’. In twenty years, they will have ceased to be ‘savages’. When that happens, they will also have ceased to exist.
So it comes to pass that these luxurious valleys leading into the barren heart of the island look like roads for the dead. Lined with wooden houses caving in on the stone terraces which are themselves worn away, pocked with sacred pae-pae where sacrificial victims were once put to death in basalt flues, they have witnessed the death of the aboriginal gods, then of men. One cool cloudless morning Gauguin died there too. Tioka, the native who remained his friend, crowned him with sweet-smelling flowers and, following the custom, annointed him with monoi oil. Then he sadly intoned, “Now, there are no more men.”
(Marquesas – Tahiti, January 1904)
Victor Segalen: “Gauguin dans son dernier décor”, Mercure de France, 1904, translated from the French by Iain Bamforth.