Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)
Paul Gauguin abandoned his native France for most of the 1890s to live on the remote Pacific island of Tahiti, a French colony since 1881.
He was attracted to the faraway island and what he saw as the primitive culture of its people. Gauguin shared the fantasy of many Europeans of the time that Tahiti was a sort of Garden of Eden, a tropical paradise.
There was an element of eroticism in the French cultural imagination regarding colonized lands such as Tahiti. They considered the island’s resources and tropical charms, as well as the island’s women, to be, in effect, freely available. Gauguin’s relationship to Tahiti is somewhat more complex. On the one hand, he strove to represent the richness of the island and the local culture and rituals in his work. On the other, Gauguin perpetuated the myths and stereotypes associated with Tahitian culture by freely transforming or even inventing seemingly authentic versions of these activities in order to make them look how he thought “primitive” culture should be.
This image of The King’s Wife epitomizes Gauguin’s erotic fantasy of Tahiti. The young, naked Tahitian woman seems to become part of the fertile landscape, both of which the artist represents as beautifully seductive. The central figure in Te Arii Vahinereclines on a grassy hill alongside several brightly colored ripe mangoes. There is a white cloth covering her groin, and she holds a large round fan behind her head. Her skin color, mask-like facial features, and the setting in which she is placed clearly mark her as a native. At the same time, her iconic pose is a reference to a European tradition of painting reclining nymphs, odalisques, and Venuses that dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century. Here, Gauguin merges those familiar erotic associations with the exotic, tropical imagery that fills his canvas.
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.”
Eisenman, Stephen F., ed. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. London; New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994.
Rosenblum, Robert. 19th Century Art. New York: Abrams, 1984.
Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism.” In The Expanding Discourse, edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, 313–329. New York: Icon Editions, 1992.
Brooks, Peter. “Gauguin’s Tahitian Body” in The Expanding Discourse. Edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard. (New York: IconEditions,1992).