Gauguin, now a minor celebrity, received an official reception when he arrived in Tahiti. Even the governor turned out to greet him. Gauguin, the artistic rebel, revelled in his role as an ambassador from home. Armed with a letter of recommendation he made the most of his privileges, just like any other European colonist.
Although Gauguin was widely admired as an intrepid adventurer, several of his contemporaries questioned why he felt the need to travel so far. The pointillist Paul Signac considered that Gauguin must be a buffoon if he thought that he could paint black in the north and blue in the south. After all if Gauguin believed in an art of the imagination then surely he had no need to travel half-way around the world.
Despite his professed interest in the native people and their culture, Gauguin ruthlessly exploited them as a novel addition to his old established themes. In “Orana Maria (Hail Mary)” the Breton landscape and peasants of his earlier pictures are replaced by semi-naked Tahitian women in a tropical setting. He imposes Christian motifs like some zealous missionary, placing halos over the Madonna and Child which contribute to the visionary atmosphere created by the unnatural colours and incorrect perspective. The winged angel in the bushes has been recycled from his earlier picture of Jacob wrestling with an angel. On that occasion the pious female figures were Breton peasants.
In “Orana Maria” Gauguin automatically assumes that the native Tahitians have willingly abandoned their own religion for Christianity. In doing so he demonstrates the same arrogance as the colonial officials who imposed their own concepts of civilisation. Far from being a primitivist, Gauguin is merely another colonist.
“Orana Maria” is nonetheless a delightfully colourful and decorative canvass. At this stage Gauguin was more concerned with producing exotic pictures for the European market than with investigating genuine Tahitian culture.
Image Source: The Yorck Project