This work will be included in the forthcoming Paul Gauguin catalogue critique, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist traveling to The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris from June 2017-January 2018.
On 16 September 1901, Gauguin disembarked from the steamship Croix du Sud in the small, ramshackle settlement of Atuona on the island of Hivaoa, in the remote Marquesas archipelago in the middle of the vast central Pacific. With less than two years remaining to him, he had arrived at the final way station in his life’s journey in search of a genuinely primitive, even savage existence, in a place as far away as possible from what he believed to be the empty encumbrances of materialism, the injustices of moral hypocrisy, and the debasement of the spiritual life that he had experienced in European society of the late nineteenth century.
At Atuona, he built himself a two-story abode with woven bamboo walls and coconut leaves for a roof, to which he gave the boldly licentious name “Maison du Jouir”–literally “House of Pleasure,” or more colloquially “House of Orgasm.” The house represented the most elaborate decorative ensemble that Gauguin ever created. An ornate door frame, emblazoned with the house’s provocative appellation, served as a ceremonial entryway; the walls were hung with woodcuts, and the rooms were filled with carved wooden objets d’art–furniture, jewelry, walking sticks, spoons, a letter opener, and at least eight sculptures, according to a posthumous inventory, most of which are lost today. “Although the environment from which they came was perishable,” Richard Brettell has written, “the ambitions of its maker were no less complex and no less mythic than were those of the architects of Chartres” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 464).
The present figure, carved with great care from a beautiful, russet-colored cylinder of rosewood, is one of the only sculptures to survive from this valedictory gesamtkunstwerk. Along with a male companion piece, it stood like a magnificent sentinel in front of the Maison du Jouir from mid-1902 until Gauguin’s death. Bare-breasted, with loins scantily clad and copper nails defining the nipples, the figure is identified by inscription–“Thérèse”–as a local woman who was rumored to have been the paramour of one Joseph Martin, the Catholic bishop on Hivaoa and Gauguin’s arch-enemy almost from the moment of his arrival there. The pendant sculpture, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., depicts the Monseigneur himself, in the guise of a horned devil. Together, these sculptures served as a powerful statement for all in Atuona to see of the Church’s hypocrisy in matters sexual, an issue that preoccupied Gauguin in his late, vehemently anti-clerical writings. With its hieratic intensity and voluptuous naiveté, the present figure also embodies the significant, potentially transforming challenge to Western ways of depicting the world–an independent, alternative force and creativity–that Gauguin was the first to discover in the arts of primitive societies, an ideal that would be developed to brilliant effect in the twentieth century by artists such as Matisse, Derain, Lhote, and Picasso.
Gauguin arrived in the Marquesas a full ten years after he had first sought refuge from his European past, in search of the paradise on earth he hoped to claim as his future, by traveling halfway around the world to Tahiti. He returned to France in 1893, but set off again less than two years later, once more for the South Seas. His personal behavior, especially his insistence on free expression and sexual license, frequently set him at odds with the local colonial establishment. By 1900 he had grown weary of the petty politics of Papeete, the seat of government in Tahiti for French Polynesia. Funds from France arrived only sporadically; he needed to live more simply and cheaply. Most importantly, there was his work: “Here my imagination has begun to cool,” he lamented in June 1901 to his friend Daniel de Monfreid back in France. “I think in the Marquesas, where it is easy to find models...and with a new country to explore–with new and more savage subject matter in brief–I shall do beautiful things” (F. O’Brien, ed., Gauguin’s Letters from the South Seas, New York, 1992, pp. 85-86).
In choosing the Marquesas, Gauguin had indeed wandered far off the beaten track, some eight hundred nautical miles northeast of Tahiti. The island landscape, of volcanic origin, was rugged and sublime. The native inhabitants were renowned to possess the finest physical aspect of all the Polynesian peoples. In November the artist reflected to Monfreid on his move to Hivaoa, “I am more and more happy about my decision, and I assure you that it will be admirable for my painting. And models! A beauty–I have commenced work already” (ibid., p. 91).
By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, Marquesan culture no longer reflected the unspoiled primitive state, in which the practice of cannibalism was still rumored to exist, that had greeted early visitors. Since France’s annexation of the islands in 1842, smallpox and other diseases had taken a terrible toll; the population steeply declined and on Hivaoa in 1900 numbered only around several thousand, a fraction of what it had once been. A few gendarmes dispatched from Tahiti policed and administered the islands. Catholic and Protestant missionaries competed with each other in the conversion of pagan souls to enlarge their respective congregations and increase their influence on daily affairs. “In every way,” David Sweetman has written, “the archipelago was the end of the earth, the drain down which all the polluted streams of nineteenth-century life flowed” (op. cit., 1995, p. 497).
Gauguin first encountered Bishop Martin, his soon-to-be nemesis and the illicit lover of the present Thérèse, within days of docking at Atuona. Upon inquiring about land available near the village center where he might build a permanent home, he learned that all the vacant tracts were in the hands of the Catholic mission; he would have to persuade the bishop to part with one. Undeterred, Gauguin began to attend mass each morning, ingratiating himself with the formidable Martin. This show of piety duly impressed the bishop, who agreed on September 27th to sell the newcomer two prime plots of land adjacent to the mission and close to the best-stocked shop in town, run by a young American named Ben Varney. Delighted, Gauguin sealed the deal–and then promptly stopped attending church.
Bishop Martin was not one to take kindly to such duplicitous antics. A heavily bearded, somewhat intolerant figure, he had come to Tahiti in 1878 and made his entire career in the islands. He was largely responsible for the publication of a new translation of the Bible in Tahitian, and since becoming the apostolic vicar to the Marquesas, he had used his considerable power to implement and enforce a rigid code of behavior, like a stern Victorian paterfamilias. He railed against drunkenness and sloth, and he worked tirelessly to enroll as many local children as possible into the mission schools, removing them from what he saw as the moral laxity of their native families. It was a classic clash of cultures, pitting foreign values against indigenous traditions and mores.
For his part, Gauguin began building immediately on the land that he had procured through Martin’s short-lived favor, and by November 1901, the Maison du Jouir was ready. On the ground floor were two rooms, a kitchen and a wood-carving studio, separated by an open breezeway that acted as a dining area. Above this, accessible by an exterior ladder, was an anteroom that held Gauguin’s bed, its walls hung lavishly with pornography. This opened in turn onto his main studio, some forty feet long and lit through six large windows. “I have everything a modest artist could wish,” Gauguin wrote to Monfreid (op. cit., 1992, p. 91).
True to its provocative name, Gauguin’s residence soon became well-known for the drunken and libidinous celebrations that he held there, with a mixed bag of wayward Frenchmen and Marquesan friends in attendance. He hired a cook and a gardener, acquired a nameless cat and a dog whom he called Pegau (an adaptation of his own initials “PGo”), and finally persuaded a local chief to offer up his teenaged daughter Vaeoho as a “bride” in exchange for 200 francs worth of ribbons and cloth from Varney’s store.
Bishop Martin could not have been more dismayed with the fate that had befallen the church’s former lands. His feud with Gauguin only intensified in the coming months, when the artist began to inform local families that the bishop had misled them about their obligations to the church. They were only legally required to send their children to the mission school if they lived in the village center, not on the outskirts, he pointed out–with the result that school attendance plummeted by half. Shortly thereafter, Gauguin befriended the Protestant pastor (and one-time medical student) Paul Vernier, who offered the artist his best hope on the island for both medical care and intellectual discourse; he also happened to be Bishop Martin’s sworn enemy. Finally, at the annual July 14th fête, where the sympathetic gendarme Charpillet asked Gauguin to judge various competitions, the artist dared to split the singing prize between the Catholic and the Protestant pupils, although the former were on this occasion far better. “The bishop’s opposition to Gauguin now passed from a state of passive irritation to active loathing,” Sweetman has written (op. cit., 1995, p. 516). Martin made Gauguin’s sexual escapades a subject of his sermons and issued dire warnings of damnation to anyone who dared to associate with the godless artist.
Gauguin was livid, not least because the bishop’s campaign made it nigh impossible for him to entice the schoolgirls who remained at the mission to come round the Maison du Jouir. It was at this moment–probably in August 1902–that Gauguin carved the present sculpture and its companion piece, setting them up outside his house to convey his views to all who passed by. Their meaning, indeed, was evident to everyone in Atuona. The face of the male figure is identifiably that of Bishop Martin, while the inscription on the bottom reads “Père Paillard” (Father Lechery). His expression is solemn and his hands clasped in prayer, but he has removed his ecclesiastical robes and sprouted devil’s horns, a motif that Gauguin had explored in a large sculpted head and at least three transfer drawings from Tahiti. Two nude women, carved in shallow relief near the base of the sculpture, allude to Martin’s sexual dalliances, which were widely reputed in the community. The bishop’s outward piety, Gauguin’s sculpture satirically proclaims, fails to mask his inner, libidinous desires–desires that he repeatedly consummated despite his vows of celibacy, while vociferously condemning Gauguin’s own liaisons with local women. The hypocrisy!
The present sculpture drove home Gauguin’s point. The eponymous Thérèse was one of Bishop Martin’s former servants, who was said to have been his mistress until she was expediently married off to a catechist at the mission. “Gauguin had hit upon a well-known and widely believed story,” Sweetman has reported. “Even a former gendarme would later claim to have been summoned to the Catholic church where the bishop was struggling to evict a woman called Henriette who had started a shouting match at the Easter mass when she discovered that the bishop had given Thérèse a silk gown, while she had received only a cotton shift” (ibid., p. 518).
While local gossip about Bishop Martin and Thérèse provided the immediate pretext for Gauguin’s attack on his ecclesiastical nemesis, the figures are no trivial slur–though the villagers evidently enjoyed the joke enormously. Rather, they represent one of the few explicit expressions in Gauguin’s entire visual oeuvre of his well-developed, fiercely anti-clerical views, which found their most sophisticated and intellectual exposition in his writings rather than his art. Unlike his paintings from Polynesia, which he regularly dispatched to Vollard for sale, Père Paillard and Thérèse (along with the contemporaneous Saint Orang, his sculptural caricature of the meddlesome gendarme Claverie) were intended for a more limited, local audience, affording him freer rein for his often-incendiary social and theological commentary.
In early 1902, as his feud with Martin was gathering steam, Gauguin was indeed hard at work on an ambitious text that he entitled L’Esprit moderne et le catholicisme. During his stay in Tahiti, he had immersed himself in the books of the contemporary English poet and writer on antiquity Gerald Massey, who outlined the spiritual development of humankind from its roots in magic and myth to established religion, as Darwin had demonstrated the process of evolution in the natural world. Inspired by Massey’s work, Gauguin traced the development of Christianity proper in his own text, critiquing the traditional teachings and the role in contemporary society of the Catholic Church, in which he himself had been raised and instructed. On the one hand, as Daniel Guérin has observed, he attempted “to find a synthesis between Christianity, purged of its dogmatic dross, and modern evolutionary science, as well as democracy. On the other, his fierce indictment of clericalism led him to anarchist, anti-statist conclusions, to vituperations against bourgeois morality” (Paul Gauguin: The Writings of a Savage, New York, 1996, p. 162).
The text of L’esprit moderne et le catholicisme was largely based on an earlier manuscript that Gauguin had drafted in Tahiti in 1897-1898, which he re-organized, edited, and elaborated on the Marquesas and then copied out laboriously in final form. He also wrote an entirely new, concluding section in 1902, however, in which he expanded his diatribe against the “unjustified dogmatic authority” and “violent and oppressive theocratic regimes” of the Church, focusing in particular on the institution of marriage and the attempted regulation of human sexuality–the very same issues that constitute the cornerstone of his caustic criticism of Bishop Martin in Père Paillard and the companion piece Thérèse (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2004, p. 231). “This is clearly an instance of Gauguin finding the right venue for his ideas,” Elizabeth Childs has written. “In his manuscript, with which he intended to reach a broad audience, he tackled the general issue of hypocrisy within the ‘dogmatic’ church; he attacked the local example in an art form he would keep at his door” (ibid., p. 240).
Yet while Gauguin’s virulent antipathy toward the Catholic Church, both as an institution and in the specific person of Bishop Martin, forms the conceptual underpinning for Père Paillard and Thérèse, it does not represent the whole theological story. In material and form, these two sculptures reflect a very different source–the native religions of Polynesia, which Gauguin had studied at length on his first trip to Tahiti in Jacques Moerenhout’s ethnographic treatise of 1837, Voyages aux îles du grand océan. Both figures are carved from the wood of the miro tree (Thespesia populnea, also known as tulip or rosewood), traditionally planted around places of worship (marae) and used for sacred statuary throughout Polynesia. Gauguin has preserved the cylindrical form of the miro log in his finished sculptures and has left the rhythmic patterns of his chisels and gouges visible everywhere except the skin surfaces, which he has filed smooth or nearly so. Moreover, although the figures retain a certain fleshy naturalism, their hieratic frontality and strict axial symmetry embody a forcefully primitive and non-Western aesthetic–“ultra-barbaric,” Gauguin approvingly called it–and may represent a response to Marquesan tikis that the artist had admired as early as his first stay in Papeete (letter to Monfreid, March 1893; quoted in op. cit., 1992, p. 30).
In the case of Père Paillard, this purposeful adaptation of native forms would only have added insult to injury for the caricatured Monseigneur. The coming of European missionaries in Polynesia had brought about the rampant destruction of native idols, with the exception of specimens retained as proofs of conversion–a process of acculturation that Gauguin has here symbolically reversed. “An important aspect of the insult inflicted on Bishop Martin by erecting the statue Father Lechery in front of the Maison du Jouir (House of Pleasure) consisted in the fact that the statue represented the bishop not only as a devil and a hypocrite but also as an idol in respect of both style and material,” Dario Gamboni has explained (op. cit., 2014, p. 196).
The figure of Thérèse, by contrast, is altogether more generous and appealing–the sculptural equivalent of the sensuous, chestnut-skinned beauties whom Gauguin painted time and again both on Tahiti and in the Marquesas. If Gauguin casts scathing judgment on the bishop for his sexual dalliance with Thérèse, she herself seems to escape all aspersion. Indeed, Thérèse bears no small resemblance to the cylindrical carvings of the ancient Polynesian goddess Hina that Gauguin made on his first trip to Tahiti, their phallic form imbuing the female divinity with a primal sexual energy. “Our mother, our daughter, our sister has the right to earn her bread, to love whomever she chooses, to dispose of her body and her beauty,” Gauguin wrote in L’Esprit moderne et le catholicisme, in a surprisingly proto-feminist critique of the institution of marriage and modern society’s ideas of legitimacy (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2004, p. 235).
To nobody’s surprise, Bishop Martin took immense personal offense when the sculptures of him and Thérèse appeared outside the Maison du Jouir. In retaliation, he enlisted the gendarme Charpillet to put a stop once and for all to Gauguin’s political rabble-rousing. There was little that authorities could do about the issue of school attendance–Gauguin was quite right that the mission had been deceiving parents on the law–but Charpillet agreed to pursue the artist for unpaid taxes. Hoping to solve two problems in one go, he seized the two sculptures with the intention of auctioning them to cover the tax bill. Gauguin thwarted the gendarme’s plan, however, by buying the figures back himself at the opening bid of 65 francs, and Charpillet was forced to replace them outside the artist’s house. Jubilant, Gauguin sent a copy of L’esprit moderne et le catholicisme to Martin; the bishop, in turn, returned it to Gauguin along with a triumphalist account of the Church’s colonial successes entitled Les missions catholiques françaises au XIXe siècle, which included a laudatory section on his own work in the Marquesas.
Thérèse and Père Paillard remained in situ until Gauguin’s death in May 1903, when they were sent to Tahiti for auction along with all the other artworks from the Maison du Jouir, including the elaborate door surround. The artist’s personal effects were auctioned locally in Atuona, and the merchant Varney purchased the house itself and dismantled it for building materials. The buyer of both the present figure and its companion piece at the auction in Papeete, which was held opposite the governor’s palace on 2 September 1903, has traditionally been identified as the Tahitian judge Piétri. It is also possible, however, that these sculptures entered the collection of a pearl merchant named Lévy, who may have sold them shortly thereafter to the Parisian gallerist Eugène Druet (see nga.gov on Père Paillard for additional discussion; also exh. cat., op. cit., 2004, p. 271 for a photograph by Druet of the present sculpture).
Père Paillard and very likely Thérèse as well were featured in the first exhibition ever of Gauguin’s sculpture, pottery, and woodcuts from the culminating Polynesian journey, held in Paris at the Galerie Eugène Blot in November 1910; Louis Vauxcelles’s article in L’Art décoratif, which was illustrated with the present sculpture, is a review of the Blot show (op. cit., 1911). The works on display generated great excitement and admiration among the artists and critics of the avant-garde, who saw in their exotic, willfully non-naturalistic forms a sort of visionary mysticism. Nearly nine thousand miles from the Marquesas, far removed from the clash of cultures from which Gauguin had forged his personal understanding of the essential evolution of the mind and spirit in modern times, the late artist had become, to quote Kirk Varnedoe, “the primitif of modernist primitivism”–its original, seminal figure (“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, p. 179).