This work will be included in the new catalogue critique of Paul Gauguin’s works being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
A blanket, almost like a sarcophagus, envelops a sleeping woman in Le rêve, Moe Moea. Paul Gauguin executed the painting in 1892, during his first stay in Tahiti. Illuminated by the flickering warmth of a distant candle light, the shrouded figure seems to progressively dissolve: the rounded forms of her bust dwindle into an immaterial streak of purple, possibly symbolically mirroring the progressive transformation of her consciousness into the mysterious consistency of sleep. This unusual metamorphosis is made all the more apparent by the presence of a second sleeper unaffected by such transformation and visible in its complete silhouette. By placing the subject at such a close range from the viewer, Gauguin has created a tension between the intrusiveness of the latter and the status of absolute remoteness experienced by the depicted woman: unaware of the spectator’s presence, she can only superficially be apprehended, as no candle can enlighten the impalpable scope of her dreams. Enhancing the mysterious, almost mystical aura of the painting, Gauguin appended to the title two Maori words: moe, meaning ‘sleep’ or ‘dream’ and moea, which can be translated as ‘sleep’ or ‘marry’.
Attracted by the pull of an unspoiled primordial world, Gauguin sailed for Tahiti in April 1891. Eager to establish ‘a studio of the tropics’, the painter had set his mind on this remote island possibly as a consequence of the surge of romanticised descriptions that the Universal Exhibition of 1889 had fostered. From a catalogue of the Exhibition dedicated to the ‘Colonies et protectorats de l’Océan Pacifique’, Gauguin had copied a passage describing a situation of idyllic perfection: ‘Beneath a sky where there is no winter, on soil that is richly fertile, the Tahitian had only to raise his arms in order to harvest his food. He never works. While in Europe, men and women must toil endlessly to earn their daily bread, struggling against cold and hunger, and suffer constant privation, the lucky inhabitants of the remote South Sea paradise of Tahiti know only life’s pleasures. For them, living means singing and loving’ (quoted in C. Frèches-Thory, ‘The Paintings of the First Polynesia Sojourn’, pp. 17-45, in Gauguin Tahiti: The Studio of the South Seas, exh. cat., Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2004, p. 20).
In reality, as Gauguin would soon find out, life in Tahiti was no ‘paradise’. Besides poverty and colonial highhandedness, the island’s inhabitants had been deprived of that very culture Gauguin was so eager to experience. Before leaving, he had wished: ‘I’m leaving so that I can be at peace and can rid myself of civilization’s influence. I want to create only simple art. To do that, I need to immerse myself in virgin nature, see only savages, live their life, with no other care than to portray, as would a child’ (quoted in ibid., p. 19). Yet, not long after his arrival, he had bemoaned to his wife: ‘The Tahitian soil is becoming completely French and little by little the old order will disappear. Our missionaries had already introduced a good deal of protestant hypocrisy and wiped out some of the poetry, not to mention the pox which has attacked the whole race’ (quoted in B. Thomson, ed., Gauguin by Himself, London, 1998, p. 167).
However prepared to admit his own delusion in his letters, in his art Gauguin was unwilling to let the sad reality of Tahiti be revealed. Paintings such as Le rêve, Moe Moea, depict a world that appears unspoilt. The very subject of the painting – sleep and dream – evokes a status of undisturbed calm and primordial life. Eager to capture and to celebrate that ‘primitive’ life he had hoped to encounter on the island, Gauguin succeeded in carving out seemingly authentic, peaceful scenes from the bleak reality of the island. Before being able to execute any significant paintings, the artist had decided nevertheless to attentively study the new environment through sketches. In a letter dated 1982, Gauguin informed his friend and artist Daniel de Monfreid: ‘I’m working more and more, but just studies up to now, or rather documents that are piling up. If they are no use to me later, they will be of use to others’ (quoted in ibid., p. 171). Gauguin’s words suggest that the artist conceived his work in Tahiti almost in anthropological terms, being concerned with ‘documenting’, before painting, indigenous life. Following such an approach, Le rêve, Moe Moea appears to have been elaborated from a sketch Gauguin included in the original manuscript of Noa Noa, the narrative, illustrated diary the artist would compose upon his return to France to divulge his own experience in Tahiti. In that early sketch, the sleeping figure appears in a more defined context: she is lying in the interior of a tent, surrounded by other figures, in a scene that evokes communal, quotidian life. The anthropological interest expressed in the sketch is, however, lost in Le rêve, Moe Moea. Isolated in a dark space, the figure has acquired a mystical presence: devoid of its mundane context, the scene takes on mysterious undertones which mark the beginning of Gauguin’s artistic transformation of the reality he experienced into the idealised, symbolic universe of his art.
The sometimes harsh life conditions in Tahiti did not prevent Gauguin from remaining sensitive to some of the island’s truly exceptional aspects, which he was prone to mystify in his writings. The impenetrable depth of the woman’s sleep portrayed in Le rêve, Moe Moea resonates with Gauguin’s fascination for the unfathomable silence he experienced during his Tahitian nights. In a letter to his wife, the painter explained: ‘The silence of the Tahitian night is even stranger than anything else. It can be found only here, with not even a birdcall to disturb it. Here and there, a large dried leaf falls but does not give you the impression of noise. It’s more like a rustling in the mind. The natives often go about at night, but barefoot and silent. Always this silence. I understand why these people can remain seated for hours, days at a time, without saying a word, gazing sadly at the sky. I feel all of this is going to invade my being and I am now wonderfully at rest’ (quoted in B. Thomson, ed., op. cit., p. 167). One could wonder whether, to be sleeping in Le rêve, Moe Moea, could be a personification of the silence of Tahiti’s night itself: impenetrable and inscrutable, she fills the space with a sense of immobility and absolute calm.
Gauguin would eventually incorporate the scene depicted in Le rêve, Moe Moea into a larger, more complex composition. In 1892, the artist created Te fare Hymenee (La maison des chants): in the circular space of a tent, groups of women are assembled together. Contrasting with the jovial atmosphere of this communal gathering, in the foreground, two lying women sleep undisturbed. Their peaceful repose is at odds with the ceremonial collective canticles that, evoked by the title of the painting, are unfolding around them. Although mysterious, the scene may have originated in an event Gauguin witnessed shortly after his arrival in Tahiti. In June 1891, he wrote to his wife: ‘The King died a few days after my arrival; his funeral had to wait until everybody in the island and the neighbouring islands had been informed. You cannot imagine what the burial was like; each village grouped itself on the grass in the evening and sang in turn their famous hyménées (choral chants in several parts), and this went on all night. For anyone who loves music it was a real treat as the people here are extraordinarily gifted in music…’ (Gauguin, quoted in ibid.). Possibly inspired by such an event, Te fare Hymenee (La maison des chants) may represent one of those celebratory gatherings, protracted into the night. Gauguin’s early study of the sleeping figures – the same that gave birth to Le rêve, Moe Moea – thus proved once again useful: included in the wider composition, it adds the realist detail of women taking a moment of rest after such intense and uninterrupted singing.
Although it may have served as a study for Te fare Hymenee (La maison des chants), Le rêve, Moe Moea is animated by its own mystery and coherence. Paying homage to the indigenous way of life Gauguin was able to personally experience during his first stay in Tahiti, the painting departs from mere observation, venturing towards the muted symbolism of his art. Gauguin’s biographer David Sweetman commented in this regard: ‘As far as his work was concerned, 1892 proved to be Gauguin’s best year out of the two he spent on the island. Some would argue that it was the best of his entire artistic career, that the blending of myth and realism which he achieved was superior to anything else in his oeuvre’ (D. Sweetman, Paul Gauguin: A Life, New York, 1995, pp. 336-337).