Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nativity (1896)

On his return to Tahiti, Gauguin was given a tour of the island by the French colonial governor. The capital Papeete was beginning to resemble a typical European town. A power station had been constructed and there was now electric lighting, paved roads, a sewage system and a telephone exchange. Gauguin retreated to the jungle where he lived in a primitive hut, and took a fourteen year-old lover whom he infected with syphilis.

Gauguin's letters home described the natives as gentle and naive “to the point of stupidity”. Not content with one teenage lover, Gauguin seduced several others and fathered at least one child. He boasted to his friends about the infatuated girls who came to his bed “as if possessed”.

Having been cruelly rejected by the European art establishment, Gauguin found solace in Tahitian hospitality. He never once considered himself as a corrupting influence. Instead he claimed to be living in harmony with nature, arguing that the carefree innocence of his Tahitian hosts reflected the true human condition untainted by the laws and morals of the supposedly civilised world.

In“Nativity” a Tahitian girl lies horizontally on a simple bed in the foreground. Her halo indicates that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her crude hut resembles a stable and is shared with the livestock in the background. Her newly born child is held by the nurse who sits at her bedside. The child's halo identifies him as Jesus. Gauguin, the child's father, appears as a shadowy figure in the background. Gauguin is no longer the tormented or martyred Christ but God the Father and compares his artistic creativity with the power of divine creation.

The “Nativity” is an optimistic picture. Gauguin appears to have found contentment in fatherhood and the adoration of his teenage lovers.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

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