After I read The Moon and Sixpence, supposedly based on the life of Paul Gauguin, I just
had to read this, Gauguin's real life journal from the two years he spent in Tahiti. The character Charles Strickland was so horrible; so cruel, selfish,
obnoxious, cold, crude—just barely a functioning human, as Maugham painted him. He barely spoke, seemed unable to feel anything resembling a human emotion, and
worse yet, didn't care. He lived in his own world and kept it securely locked down. I thought, certainly Gauguin, an artist of such sensual expression could
not have been anything like that. Surely not.
When I saw this book on sale at Dover, I snatched it up. It is only 65 pages, and can be read in a few hours. And, thankfully, there seems to be little similarities between Gauguin's personality and the odious Strickland. That is not to say there were not similarities in their lives. Gauguin did leave his wife and Europe—France, because he could no longer tolerate the degenerate "civilization" in which he lived. He came to Tahiti, he says on an "artistic mission" for the French government.
When he disembarks, he makes a formal visit to the governor. They think he is a spy. Neither he nor the Tahitians trust one another. Things are not as he had hoped they would be. The town here is too European, too "civilized" and add to that the last king has just died. Gauguin lay ill after the funeral, and was visited by King Pomare's niece, Vaïtüa:
"Vaïtüa was a real princess, if such still exist in this country, where the Europeans have reduced everything to their own level. In fact, she had come as a simple ordinary mortal in a black dress, with bare feet, and a fragrant flower behind the ear."
When Gauguin recovers, he knows he must leave even this civilization to reach what he desires, so he travels deep into the wilderness where he rents a hut. Very soon, his supplies run out, and it strikes him that money is completely useless here. One must know how to fish and gather fruit and survive with only nature. He has no friends, and barely speaks the language. But very quickly, the neighbors warm and offer him food. He is ashamed, but a little child drops off some vegetables and fruit. Then a man comes by, smiling and asks him if he is contented.
"Here was I, a civilized man, distinctly inferior in these things to the savages. I envied them. I looked at their happy, peaceful life round about me, making no further effort than was essential for their daily needs, without the least care about money. To whom were they to sell, when the gifts of Nature were within the reach of every one?"
It doesn't take long before he becomes close friends with the native people, and grows to love them, participating with them
in their daily lives and routine. And he can feel himself breaking free from the chains of civilization, becoming more at peace with himself and his environment.
But he is lonely, so he seeks a "wife" and finds one in a rather distant village. She is the thirteen-year-old Tehura. She spends a week with him, then
is to return to her mother to make the decision whether she wishes to be with Gauguin. He loves her, yet does not think she will return. She does, and they
remain together until he has to go back to France on official business. She teaches him so much about Maori religion and customs.
Of course, the years spent on the South Sea islands enabled Gauguin to produce his best-known works of art, and to develop this new style called "Primitivism." His journal is a little gem, enabling us to peer into the soul of this complicated and gifted artist.
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