(b. 1848, Paris, d. 1903, Atuona, Hiva Oa, French Polynesia)

Contes Barbares (Barbarian Tales)

Oil on canvas, 130 x 89 cm
Museum Folkwang, Essen

In August 1901, Gauguin settled in the Marquesas Islands, in the remote village of Atuona, Hiva Oa, where he built his "House of Pleasure," decorated with his wood carvings and paintings. The lack of money and ill-health were made worse by a permanent conflict with the authorities, from the police to the bishop. In the midst of these worries that gradually weakened him, he painted his last masterpieces, And the Gold of Their Bodies, Barbarian Tales.

Gauguin perceived that which civilised man calls contemptuously "barbarian" and "savage" as morally wholesome, as containing a primordial purity, a healthier and more normal state of human condition. Consequently, he escaped always further, first to Brittany, and then to Martinique, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands. Before Pablo Picasso and André Derain discovered African art, Gauguin found his inspiration in primitive arts.

In his late paintings, produced on Hiva Oa, Gauguin seems to have attempted a reconciliation between his Western past, and the more "savage" Polynesia. Nowhere is this more evident than in Contes Barbares. The West is represented here by the figure of the painter Meyer de Haan (1852-1895), a friend of Gauguin, who accompanied him to Brittany but due to health reasons could not follow him to the South Pacific, whom Gauguin had not seen since they had worked together in Brittany. The liberty that Gauguin has taken with this portrait, and the suggestion of a demonic aspect to Meyer de Haan's character, implies a West that is necessarily corrupt. The Orient, on the other hand, is represented by two stoical Polynesian figures, the red-haired figure of Tohotaua, who was portrayed in Woman with a Fan, and the dark-haired woman who sits in a classic Buddhist pose, perhaps a quotation from Borobudur.

The meaning of the title is not clear. In his last works, Gauguin had abandoned his earlier practice of naming his paintings, but he made an exception here. The steady gaze of all three figures suggests that any communication is conducted with the spectator rather than within the picture space itself.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.