is the Marae at Taputapuātea on Ra’iātea Island. It doesn’t really look like much now to be honest. The only other people there on a visit last spring were a few white tourists getting what sounded like a pretty tedious lecture in French. Two guards were chilling under a tree. When I sort of tentatively started to walk on the marae’s volcanic rock base, one of the guards gave me a whistle and like a don’t do that gesture, but didn’t bother getting up.
But that’s 2019. We have to picture the marae as it was, when it was at its most magnificent. Covered with vines, when the great drums sounded:
Marae became fearful places. They were dark, shaded by groves of sacred trees… People spoke of these places as the jawbones of the gods, biting the spirits who passed into the dark underworld where they were consumed by the gods while the stone uprights on their pavements were called their niho or teeth
High priests told the early missionary John Osmond:
Terrible were the marae of the royal line, their ancestral and national mare! They were places of stupendous silence, terrifying and awe-inspiring places of pain to the priest, to the owners, and to all the people. It was dark and shadowy among the great trees of those marae.
canoes beached by the marae, wailing conch trumpets sounded, and the heads and genitals of their most high-ranking victims were tightly bound with the multi-coloured plait sennit of the god, destroying the mana (ancestral power) and fertility of their lineages and districts. Some of these corpses were hung up in the sacred trees, while others were used as canoe rollers
So tells Dame Professor Anne Salmond in her book:
I looked forward to reading the rest of Dame Professor Salmond’s book, it’s incredible. She makes the point that when Europeans first made contact with Tahiti, they tended to think of it as like this unspoiled paradise. But Polynesia was in the midst of its own turbulent history, the Europeans arrived at a particular moment in Polynesia’s development. There’d just been a violent takeover by islanders from Bora Bora.
They weren’t waiting around for guys in ships to show up. There was a whole scene!
The painting evokes a sense of Pacific paradise in which sexual relations are playful and harmless. According to Professor Peter Toohey, “this jealousy is not the product of a threat to an exclusive sexual relationship or jilted love affair – it is the result of one of the sisters having enjoyed more sex than the other the night before”.
So says Professor Toohey. Gauguin.org counters:
Despite the title, there seems to be no rivalry between the two women, who are not talking. Rather, the question might be directed at those who would see the painting in the future and might envy Gauguin and his models their tropical dolce far niente.
Over at Paul-Gauguin.net, you can view his works according to some ranking of popularity.
Breton Village Under Snow.
Here in LA, at LACMA, we have:
And a few others, none of them currently on view:
How about a wood carving?:
“Be in love and you will be happy.”
Gauguin’s ankle was injured in a fight in 1894. This is sometimes referred to as “a drunken brawl,” or “a brawl with sailors,” but in this book
we’re told that
on an outing to Concarneau, he and Anna and a couple of friends got into a squabble with some children
(we’ve all been there, you’re at the beach and you get in a fight with some children).
Local sailors came to the youngsters’ assistance, and in the ensuing brawl, Gauguin broke his ankle.
Anna by the way was not Gauguin’s wife and mother of his kids, but his mistress, seen here:
who would dance with a little monkey for society gentlemen
Gauguin: what a piece of work!
sometimes reading “the news” I am reminded of this part from Barbarian Days:
In the cemeteries in Tonga, late in the day, there always seemed to be old women tending the graves of their parents – combing the coral-sand mounds into proper coffin-top shape, sweeping away leaves, hand-washing faded wreaths of plastic flowers, rearranging the haunting patterns of tropical peppercorns, orange and green on bleached white sand.
A shiver of secondhand sorrow ran through me. And an ache of something else. It wasn’t exactly homesickness. It felt like I had sailed off the edge of the known world. That was actually fine with me. The world was mapped in so many different ways. For worldly Americans, the whole globe was covered by the foreign bureaus of the better newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal – and, at that time, the big newsweeklies. Every place on earth was part of somebody’s beat. Bryan understood that map before I did, having gone to Yale. But when I’d found an old copy of Newsweek on Captain Brett Hilder’s bridge, and tried to read a George Will column, I’d burst out laughing. His Beltway airs and provincialism were impenetrable. The truth was, we were wandering now through a world that would never be a part of any correspondent’s beat (let alone George Will’s purview). It was full of news, but all of it was oblique, mysterious, important only if you listened and watched and felt its weight.
As the Jamaican cab driver said, the news is a Babylon thing.
Gauguin placed this painting on consignment at the exhibition at a price of 1,500 francs, the highest price he assigned and shared by only one other painting, but had no takers.
Gaugin didn’t always crush it with his titles (Study of A Nude, etc) but sometimes he nailed it. Here is Where Are You Going?
(sometimes less interestingly called Woman Holding A Fruit)
Of course best of all, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? at the good ol’ Boston MFA.
Charles Moricetwo years later tried to raise a public subscription to purchase the painting for the nation. To assist this endeavour, Gauguin wrote a detailed description of the work concluding with the messianic remark that he spoke in parables: “Seeing they see not, hearing they hear not”. The subscription nevertheless failed.
You can read about Geoff Dyer’s frustrating experiences with these paintings and Gaugin and Tahiti in:
I was bummed I missed that dude at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, bet we could’ve had some laughs.