“For 63 days I have been on my way, and I burn to reach the longed-for land. On June 8th we saw strange fires moving about in zig-zags–fisherman. Against a dark sky a jagged black cone stood out. We were rounding Moorea and coming in sight of Tahiti.”1
Thus begins Noa Noa, Paul Gauguin’s controversial diary of his first trip to Tahiti from 1891-1893. The title references a Tahitian word denoting “fragrance” and is invoked throughout the diary as a signifier for the intoxicating essence of the island, emanating from the bodies of the men and women that Gauguin projects his sexual fantasies onto. During these years, as well as in a subsequent trip from 1895-1901, Gauguin produced some of his best known paintings, often depicting the young women of Tahiti as nude beauties set in colorful backdrops of wilderness and water. This includes Manau Tupapau (The spirit of the dead watches) (1892), currently in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The sources of this work are a hybrid of the Bourgeois Parisian life Gauguin had left behind, and the new life on the island that he was seeking in hopes of rejecting it. This particular work is often compared to Edouard Manet’s Olympia (which Gauguin had painted a copy of and had a reproduction of hanging in his Tahitian home) for its subversion of the genre of the reclining, female nude. Manet’s work, too, made reference to a previous masterwork, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), likely a depiction of his patron’s mistress. An origin story for Manau Tupapau is referenced in Noa Noa. According to Gauguin’s account, the work references an incident involving the thirteen year old bride the artist took while on the island (while his legal, French wife Mette Gauguin was waiting back in Europe with their children), Tehamana. One day, he leaves Tehamana to go to a nearby village. She is left with little oil for the lamps that light their dwelling. When he returns, she is frightened and angry that Gauguin has left her in the darkness, and accusing him of infidelity. Manau Tupapau depicts the moment when he finds Tehamana. He paints her as a short, brown-skinned body, laying across a bed, with her hands splayed beside her face, in a position of unwilling surrender. In place of the black servant in Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus there is a black-robed specter with angry eyes staring down at Tehamana.
It is now a commonplace that almost nothing in Gauguin’s accounts of Tahiti, painted or written, are to be trusted. Nicholas Wadley, in his explication of Noa Noa writes, “It is well enough known that the Tahiti Gauguin had read about in Paris – an island paradise untouched by Western civilization – no longer existed and that his disillusionment with the effects upon Tahitian life of colonial rule and missionary education almost immediate. There was virtually no indigenous art, no idols; traditional religious ritual had virtually disappeared, the ancient burial ground and temples were in ruins.”2 Furthermore, Wadley explains that there is evidence that Gauguin had cribbed large portions of his representation of indigenous Tahitian culture and mythology from an earlier 19th century ethnographic study, using Tehamana as a mouthpiece for the purposes of authenticity.
The story of Gauguin’s travels to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands in hopes of escaping modern life and producing luscious canvases rife with the essence of “noa noa,” and today, the inevitable “reveal” of its artifice are themselves tropes of a wider mythic discourse in art history: Modernism’s relationship to its constructed other, and foil, “the Primitive.” The words Orientalism, Picasso, African masks, Dubuffet, and Pollock, can all represent nodes in this discourse and stories of colonial fantasy, desires for a “return” to emotional, spiritual and sexual freedom, appropriation, and assimilation.
Caitlin Cunningham’s solo show at sophiajacob takes up these critiques, with a distinctly contemporary touch. While art history claims to have long ago exposed Gauguin’s exploitation, and opportunism, it seems that sectors of the culture industry are happy to continue promoting a fantastic version of Tahiti’s island culture. Cunningham’s video work in the show displays slowed down promotional footage produced for the Paul Gauguin cruise company, which offers luxury tours of the South Pacific and the Caribbean.
A nearby print of a televised news image from the recent tragic sinking of the HMS Bounty reveals another nautical fantasy. The bounty was a replica ship built in the early 1960s for the Marlon Brando remake of the 1934 film Mutiny on the Bounty, itself a retelling of the story of a doomed trip to and from Tahiti by the British Navy in the 19th century.
Collaged ephemera and book covers elsewhere on display further the idea that Tahiti cannot escape its historic condition as tourist destination and colonial resource.
Like Gauguin’s paintings, Cunningham’s installation employs a seductive side. A central platform occupies much of the gallery; an island, with bright light, and a careful arrangement of lush, potted plants (cultivated by the artist) and painted clay forms whose rough surfaces evoke knowing cliches of Primitivism.
We always look forward to what will go inside the small back room niche at sophiajacob, and for this show the space was bathed in a strong, clean purple light that emanated into the main gallery, and onto more plants. An extension cord dangled clumsily among the plants, readily revealing its artifice.
On the gallery’s website, a statement from Cunningham indicates that her process involves, “reading, writing, making objects inspired by the master, using the paint colors he did according to Eyewitness books, and assembling relevant ephemera into illogical but possibly related narratives.” Cunningham’s desire to refuse logic or explicit relation in the narrative sequence of the show in this statement is understandable. Yet, the show does, in a nonlinear, yet appropriately rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari’s model of meaning that derived from the branched, regenerative growth of, for example, ginger plants) probe at a number of intersecting, historically, and politically rich topics with great success.
1 Paul Gauguin, “Noa Noa” (1893). Reproduced in Noa
Noa: Gauguin’s Tahiti, Nicholas Wadley, ed. (Topsfield, MA: Salem House Publishing, 1985) 12.
2 Nicholas Wadley, “The Fact and Fiction of Noa Noa,” Wadley (1985) 108.
Caitlin Cunningham’s show runs through May 25th. Sophiajacob is located at 405 West Franklin Street. The gallery is open on Saturday’s from 1:00 to 4:00.
All photos courtesy sophiajacob.