Paul Gauguin is a divisive figure. A libertine renegade who sacrificed Western society’s comforts in a quest for artistic purity in the South Seas. Or a morally decadent self-publicist who perpetuated exoticist clichés and used his status to exploit the women of this ‘paradise’. Or both? Gauguin was a complicated person. And his time in the Pacific is particularly controversial. Some people think he was a noble explorer, one of the first people to properly engage with Polynesian society and culture on their own terms. But others think he was a seedy sex tourist. A man who objectified and exoticised this part of the world for his own ends. It is, as ever, a bit of both. But one thing art historians are certain: Gauguin reinvigorated the old myth of Polynesia for the modern age.
Gauguin in Tahiti: Paradise Lost takes us on the trail of a story that has become myth. Through Tahiti and Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, we experience the landscapes that inspired Gauguin, in the places where he built houses with bamboo and leaves, and discovered light and colours which changed his painting forever. It is a journey towards the essence of life and art, and forging his destiny as one of the greatest modern painters who ever lived. This stunning state-of-the-art cinema event also brings us to Paris, Bretagne, Edinburgh, and to the most prestigious art museums of the United States, where most of his masterpieces are preserved.
In 1890 Paul Gauguin needed a miracle. His wife had abandoned him, and taken his children with her. His old friend Vincent van Gogh had killed himself. His career as an artist had stalled. And he was penniless. So he hatched a plan, which he announced to his estranged wife in a letter: “May the day come… when I can flee to the woods on a south sea island, and live there in ecstasy, for peace and for art.”
Gauguin had bought in to an old myth about Polynesia that went all the way back to the time of Captain Cook. A tropical paradise: a land in which the living was easy – and so were the women. In March of 1891, Gauguin boarded a ship called the Oceania and left Europe, he hoped, forever. Gauguin arrived in Tahiti three months later. But it felt far more like Europe than he had anticipated. It was filled with French people. French buildings. French newspapers. And exorbitantly priced French wine.
After three months he moved out of the capital to the countryside, and built himself a traditional hut, with reed walls and a thatched roof. Gradually Gauguin fashioned his own fantasy paradise. He learned a few words of Tahitian. He got to know his neighbours. He spent lots of the time walking around naked. ‘Bit by bit, step by step’ he said, ‘civilisation is peeling away from me’.
Gauguin’s experience wasn’t as authentic as he liked to claim. But it inspired a number of intoxicating paintings.
Italy 2019, 87 min, exempt
Directed by Claudio Poli
Narrated by Adriano Giannini