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13 / The Body

Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)
Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)
Artist / Origin Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)
Region: Europe
Date 1896
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 38.1 in. (97 cm.), W: 51.1 in. (130 cm.)
Location The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia
Credit © The Gallery Collection/CORBIS

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)

» Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)

expert perspective

Anne D’Alleva Anne D’Alleva Associate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

There’s a fantasy of the Pacific that grows out of these voyages of exploration in the eighteenth century. This fantasy dovetails with certain Enlightenment ideas and interests. And so Enlightenment philosophers read the accounts of the voyages, read Cook’s voyages, etc., and they create this superstructure of ideas about Tahiti. So it is a fantasy of Tahiti that’s not really based in anything that anyone experienced there, but this idea that it is this place, for example, of free love. The French explorer Bougainville christens it the Island of Venus, Ile de la Cythère, because it is this island of free love, where there is no shame and where there is this amazing atmosphere of sexuality. Of course, it is really not quite like that, and yet, it is this fantasy that people take away. And it meets certain needs in terms of a Europe that is trying to re-imagine itself in various ways through the Enlightenment.

And this continues in the nineteenth century. And you have this tension between this image of the noble savage and the ignoble savage, the poor benighted heathen who has to be saved by missionaries and Christianity and middle-class European values and the noble savage who is pure and innocent and should just be left alone. And there’s this kind of warring tension. I think these are two images that haven’t entirely gone away. I think they are still very much with us.

But, of course, they are certainly with an artist like Gauguin, who then goes to Tahiti in the late nineteenth century because this is what he’s looking for. He is looking for innocence; he is looking for primitive society, an unspoiled society. And, of course, he is completely irked when he gets to Tahiti and he is in Papeete and not only can’t he get croissant for breakfast and a nice cup of coffee, but it is not nearly the sexual paradise and the free and easy society where all you have to do is pluck the fruit from the trees to live that he had imagined or wanted. But that was a fantasy that certainly fueled his work and fueled his voyage, his desire to go there.

So someone like Gauguin, Gauguin paints the fantasy of what he wanted to find, what he thought he was going to find in Tahiti. And it is something that is very powerful. So even today you go to Tahiti and you can buy all sorts of souvenirs and t-shirts and all sorts of things with Gauguin’s images that are re-circulated in a local context. And there is this mixed sort of pride in these images that Tahiti was the wellspring, the inspiration for these great, wonderfully amazing works of art, but also a certain tension around everything that is left out of these images as well.” 

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