In Spring 1891, Paul Gauguin boarded an elegant, comfortable ship called Océanien, bound for those islands of the Pacific Ocean which were distant colonies of France.
He wrote. “I’m leaving so as to have a quiet life away from civilisation. I want to do simple, very simple art; for this I need to regain my strength by contact with virginal nature, to see only wild human beings and live their life, with no other worry except to translate the fantasies of the mind with the simplicity of a child and with the only true, effective methods: those of primitive art.”
Some years earlier he had written: “The West is rotten […] Those who are like Hercules can find new sources of strength travelling towards unspoilt places. So as to come back more solid one or two years later”.
On his arrival in Papeete-Tahiti, Gauguin soon realised that the paradise he had yearned for had been destroyed many years ago by European colonisation, but it did still live on in certain isolated villages in those “indies”, an important part of the native culture he was looking for.
As he began to paint, Gauguin at first tried to find a compromise between our Christian/Catholic traditional culture and the Polynesian one, but the results did not satisfy him.
So with his characteristic perspicacity and stubbornness he plunged more and more deeply into the ethnic spirit of those places, exploring their anthropological aspects and studying the pigments used by the natives for the tattoos which decorated their bodies or for embellishing their boats and totems. At the end he had created a warm colour-scheme which was both concrete and spiritual.
Orange/rust was central to this colour-scheme, and was used specifically to indicate those wild beaches which so fascinated him, to outline certain animals, to draw patches of flowers or plants, to show the way certain materials drape or hang.
Finally, the “Catholic coloniser”, feeling increasing affinity with the archaic beliefs of those peoples, became a ferocious critic of the Church of Rome and fell wholly under the spell of the Polynesian legends and myths. Thus he painted the famous canvas The white horse; then Matamua, now part of the Thyssen collection, showing a legendary valley in the centre of the island of Tahiti, whose inhabitants still lived in the past; and later he made the numerous small statues of gods and idols.
In the last years of his life, spent on the Marchesas islands, Gauguin wrote a lot about the tradition of Polynesian sculpture: “This art has now disappeared thanks to the missionaries, who thought the sculpture expressed by this people was nothing but fetishism, an offense to God”. And he was right. In fact at the end of the 19th century, almost all the wooden sculptures made by the ancient Polynesians were destroyed or burned in the Christian missions. So Gauguin decided to undertake the epic task of trying to restore to the natives their destroyed mythology, hence their identity and dignity. Unfortunately however, almost all the sculptures he created in those years were made with low-quality wood, so that only two statues remain, today kept in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
In April 1892, Gauguin wrote: “I want to end my life here in the solitude of my hut. Oh yes, here I’m a criminal but….what’s wrong with that? Michelangelo was a criminal too”.
But what “crime” is Gauguin referring to? That of his progressive rejection of all vestiges of European society and middle-class culture, choosing freedom from all conventions and moral scruples. It was not difficult for him considering his consistently rebellious, unconventional nature.
And so he began his masterpiece, the largest canvas he had ever painted: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
The work follows an inverse chronological order. Beginning from the left, we see the poignant figure of an old man in foetal position, his ears covered by his hands; while on the right is a newborn baby, the symbol of life and innocence, surrounded by three young Tahitian women. In the centre of the picture is the figure of a native gathering a fruit, an allegory of the temptation to sin which has always tormented mankind.
The reason for structuring the picture in inverse chronological order was to indicate that the primitive, the ingenuous, the happy abandonment to existence, was the only path to the regeneration of the “sick West” as well as of the art that Europe was then producing. In the picture, the orange/rust colour appears here and there in patches, in some places deepening into raw sienna or cinnabar green. Why does orange/rust return more and more often in Gauguin’s late period?
As demonstrated in his writings, Gauguin was well versed in the symbolic, alchemic meanings of the various colours. Orange, in its more or less oxidised forms, indicates a newfound inner harmony, self-confidence, the belief that a perfect world is possible. It also contains the principle of total understanding, awareness, wisdom, balance, progressive detachment from the futile materialism propounded by a certain type of society. Hence it becomes the colour which dispels depression, increasing the ability to react to adversity rapidly and effectively. And it is the symbol par excellence of fertility and positive energy.
So Gauguin insisted on the possibility of both catharsis and rebirth, pointing us to a possible way, a return to nature in the form of a “marriage” with nature itself. He re-proposed a pagan female relationship with the environment which recalled the idea of the womb, the common matrix, as against the overbearing “phallic” culture of industrialisation, which he perceived as the advancing tyrannical enemy. Moreover he understood that the “original sin” was Man’s arrogant interference with the Garden of Eden and transformation of it, that logic which in the 20th century has led to the continuous destruction of nature and the idea that the world is just a valley of tears to be crossed or destroyed.
Thus Gauguin and his oranges set themselves up in opposition to the Augustinian idea of mundus est immundus, “the world is foul” so it can be violated at our pleasure without considering what the future generations may think about it.
And this means we must continue to reflect, and then we must act with the cultural tools in our possession, just as the great French painter did before us in his enlightened, passionate, titanic way.