Paul Gauguin, before he went to the equator, saw the impending change. He was weary of a Paris where everything had been painted, described, modelled, so he sailed for Tahiti, landing at Papeete. Even there he found the taint of European ideas, and after the funeral of King Pomaré and an interlude of flirtation with an absinthe-drinking native princess, niece of the departed royalty (he made a masterly portrait of her), he fled to the interior and told his experiences in Noa Noa, The Land of Lovely Scents. This little book, illustrated with appropriate sketches by the author-painter, is a highly important contribution to the scanty literature dealing with Gauguin. Beyond telling us details about the Pont-Aven School and the art and madness of gifted Vincent Van Gogh, both are reticent about Gauguin's pilgrimage to the South Seas. We knew why he went there, now we know what he did while he was there. The conclusion of the book is illuminating. "I returned to Paris two years older than when I left, but feeling twenty years younger."
The cause of this rejuvenation was a complete change in his habits. With an extraordinary frankness, not at all in the perfumed manner of that eternal philanderer, Pierre Loti, this one-time sailor before the mast, this explosive, dissipated, hard-living Paul Gauguin became as a child, simulating as well as could an artificial civilised Parisian with sick nerves the childlike attitude toward nature that he observed in his companions, the gentle Tahitians. He married a Maori, a trial marriage, oblivious of the fact that he had left behind him in France a wife and children, and, clothed in the native girdle, he roamed the island naked, unashamed, free, happy. With the burden of European customs from his shoulders, his almost moribund interest in his art revived. Gauguin there experienced visions, was haunted by exotic spirits. One picture is the black goddess of evil, whom he has painted as she lies on a couch with a white background, a colour inversion of Manet's Olympe. With the cosmology of the islanders the Frenchman was familiar.
He has, in addition to portraying the natives, made an agreeable exposition of their ways and days, and their naïve blending of Christian and Maori beliefs. His description of the festival called Areosis is startling. Magical practices, with their attendant cruelties and voluptuousness, still prevail in Tahiti, though only at certain intervals. Very superstitious, the natives see demons and fairies in every bush.
The flowerlike beauty of the brown women comes in for much praise, though to be truthful, the ladies on his canvases seem far from beautiful to prejudiced Occidental eyes. This Noa Noa is a refreshing contribution to the psychology of a painter who, in broad daylight dreamed fantastic visions, a painter to whom the world was but a painted vision, as the music of Richard Wagner is painted music overheard in another world.
"A painter is either a revolutionist or a plagiarist," said Paul Gauguin. But the tricksy god of irony has decreed that, if he lasts long enough, every anarch will end as a conservative, upon which consoling epigram let us pause.