The Gauguin Painting That Terrified Gauguin

Posted filed underFrance, Impressionism.


Arii Matamoe (known in English as The Chief Is Asleep or The Royal End) is “the sort of painting Gauguin had in mind when he wrote to a painter friend … from Papeete, ‘My canvases terrify me – the public will never accept them. They’re ugly in every respect …” Phyllis Tuchman thinks the work is still pretty scary.

The Obit Mag reports: “When the J. Paul Getty Museum bought a surprising and macabre still life by Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin in 2008, the acquisition made the front page of the New York Times. Gauguin, boorish and untamed, was back in the news again, 104 years after his death, with a work that is almost as shocking to modern sensibilities as it was to those of his own time.

Painted in Tahiti during June 1892, it’s the sort of painting Gauguin had in mind when he wrote to a painter friend late that March from Papeete, “My canvases terrify me — the public will never accept them. They’re ugly in every respect…”

You can judge for yourself. Arii Matamoe — which is known in English as The Chief Is Asleep and as The Royal End — went on view in pristine condition. Before 2008, the painting on burlap had only been exhibited once since 1946.

Relatively small — just 19 inches by 29 inches — Arii Matamoe is mostly dark in color as well as mood. Atop a table in a room with a geometrically patterned wall, a severed head of a Tahitian native sits on a white pillow. The violence of the image festers as the viewer takes in the attractive rug, the stylized mask and double-tiki carving. Women, variously posed and dressed, appear in the background, which opens onto a landscape.

Gauguin, chastened by a recent escape of death, tempered the horror of the decapitated head with a crisp, radiant palette of hibiscus pink, mango yellow, leafy green, and fragrant lavender. Which makes it all the more arresting and mysterious.

Gauguin was a misfit who became a world-class wanderer. Born in Paris almost 160 years ago, on June 7, 1848, he was raised between the ages of 1 and 6 in Peru by his mother, a recent widow. The future artist was so churlish that in 1865 she advised him “to get on with his career, since he has made himself so unliked by all my friends that he will one day find himself alone.” He promptly enlisted in the merchant marines and sailed for Rio de Janeiro.

During his roamings Gauguin became a stockbroker, a discerning art collector, and a painter who exhibited with the Impressionists. After a stock market collapse, Gauguin, his Danish wife, and their five children moved to Rouen, then Copenhagen. Later on, he traveled to Brittany, Martinique, and Arles to paint.

In his 40s, Gauguin set out for French Polynesia with high expectations. In a letter to a friend in July 1890, he declared, “Tahiti is a paradise for Europeans.” But when he got there, he discovered it wasn’t. Instead, in the wake of the death of King Pomare V, which occurred a few days after his arrival, the French artist realized, “With him Maori history closed…. The dream which had brought me to Tahiti was brutally disappointed by the actuality. It was the Tahiti of former times which I loved. That of the present filled me with horror.”

As Gauguin became acclimated, things went from bad to worse. For one, building a house wasn’t as easy as he’d assumed. Then too, life on the island was more expensive than he’d anticipated. By November 1891, he’d made many drawings, which he called documents, but had painted few pictures. Moreover, he’d used up much of the stock of canvas he’d brought from France when he executed a mural that he subsequently destroyed. ”

Read on at The Obit