Thursday, 22 January 2009

Paul Gauguin
Courtauld Institute Gallery, London
5 December 2008

Nevermore, O Tahiti 1897
Oil on Canvas 60 x 116 cm

It had been my original intention to include Gauguin’s painting from 1891 called Faaturuma which actually means melancholic. This is typical of his symbolist approach to colour and line and is indeed a melancholic full length portrait of Tehura, the 13 year old mistress Gauguin describes in his journal, Noa Noa, with her head in a pose reminiscent of Dürer’s Melencholia I. Unfortunately I have only seen reproductions of the painting, which is in Kansas City USA, I decided to use the equally sad Nevermore instead.

It is exhibited in the same room in The Courtauld Institute as Manet’s Un bar aux Folies Bergère and I could almost feel it brooding over my shoulder as I sat looking at the Manet. It is a half life sized reclining nude that loosely pays homage to Manet's Olympia which Gauguin was known to have copied before leaving France in 1895, on what was to be his last trip to Tahiti.

The canvas looks very coarse, perhaps jute or hessian, but had been primed so heavily that the weave is only visible in the corners. The paint is thin and the brush work light which gives a lovely luminance to the background. The nude figure is more opaquely painted and shows a degree of modelling, but not so much that it disrupts the overall lack of depth.

The composition sets up a triangular relationship between the nude figure, the watching raven and the two sinister figures deep in conversation in the background. The flash of the subject’s eyes somehow indicates that she is either listening in to their whispering or mindful of the watching raven. The pose with her head in her hand is borrowed from Dürer and is almost a symbol for melancholic brooding. Perhaps she is reflecting on the gossip of the women or the loss of Tahitian innocence (a favourite theme of Gauguin’s) in their paradise.

The title may be interpreted as an allusion to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, which Gauguin new through a translation by his friend Stéphane Mallarmé. A sombre tone cerainly pervades the colours of the room in keeping with mood of the poem.

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Gauguin lightens this mood somewhat by using a bright, lemon yellow for the pillow, and touches of red behind her feet and legs. This strawberry red contrasts superbly with the greenish hues behind, just as the yellow does with the blue of the bedspread. Gauguin had very defined ideas about colour and although it is subdued in this painting, it still serves to convey meaning.

This sensitivity to colour could be criticised as decorative, but for me it always served to heighten emotions in his work and has been a big influence on my own practice.

©blackdog 2009


  1. A very fine interpretation taking knowledge of some notes which might be important for the understanding of this painting (e.g. poem of Poe/Mallarmé)- in a great exhibition "Destinations of Desire" (one chapter: Southsea) in Münster we saw some paintings and sculptures of Gauguin and heard a reading of his journal" Noa Noa"- indeed, there is in this painting a deeply melancholic-apathic mood, an atmosphere which might express the loss of a "paradise on earth", because the Tahitian culture will be/has been destroyed by the results of European colonialism - Gauguin self has -ultimately- lost his imagination and desire of a kind of paradise- he wished to "live like a wild man"/to be an 'oviri', but his paintings don't depicture the Tahitian reality but are 'constructions' of his imagination and desire, an ideal lifestyle in harmony of mankind and nature he was very dreaming of. Tehura looks very beautiful and seducing in her innocwence and he is told to have loved her very much -an homage to her beauty, too! In his painting there are combined Polynesian (e.g. flowers) and European/colonial elements as I read. It is a beautiful painting!

  2. The possibilities to post a comment have sadly changed as I see. I respect that, and I don't have to add something- because all has been said very precisely and sensitively- except two points:
    In opposite to the Manet-painting (original title: "Le bain") there is no water - we cannot explain why only one person is naked- The erotic atmosphere in Manet's painting has totally disappeared, because the young people are not able to communicate- they seem to singles- with each other- a sad generation from my point of view who has lost the language, self music is missing (?)- the nature is not a place of naturalness, joy of life, freedom, ease, and permissiveness in opposite to the city life in Paris like on Manet's painting, but a place of being bored... I don't believe that the pictured young people are filled with melancholy but we older observer might feel in that way! Ph.Kleinknecht