Paul Gauguin’s study of a Tahitian woman holding a fruit exemplifies the artist’s penchant for eroticizing Oceania.
P aul Gauguin’s Eü haere ia oe (Woman Holding a Fruit) – the enigmatic Maori title translates as “Where are you going?” – was painted in 1893 and offers a verdant vision of an idealized South Seas maiden along with an examination of the colonial judgment under which she falls. It's housed in Russia's State Hermitage Museum, and has highlighted their permanent collection since 1948. The painting has a sister work, held in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, completed the previous year. In that more muted composition, the woman represents Iviri, the Maori goddess of death. But Gauguin's focus on the present work is life and fertility.
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Gauguin, like Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, is as an evergreen subject for filmmakers and novelists. The notion of a European cultural figure exiling himself on a tropical island – renouncing his family in the process – is an alluring hook for storytellers.
On screen he has been played by Donald Sutherland, Anthony Quinn and Oscar Isaac. Most recently, Vincent Cassel played the artist in Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017). “I would surf every morning at five o’clock in the morning before getting on set,” Cassel told one interviewer. Gauguin, Cassel claimed, “was brave enough to leave everything behind – brave and cowardly. Because leaving your family is to be a coward from my point of view. He was just on a mission running after something he wasn’t sure of.”
Probably the first handling of Gauguin’s adventure – or misadventure – was The Moon and Sixpence, the 1919 novel in which W. Somerset Maugham played fast and loose with the story, recasting the Frenchman as a middle-aged English stockbroker who jettisons the city life of London for a painter’s hut in the tropics. Somerset-Maugham, who was a noted art collector, owned a Tahitian hut door decorated with a Gauguin mural.
Works by Gauguin from his time on Tahiti are some of the most sought-after Post-Impressionist paintings to appear at Sotheby’s auctions. In 2007, Te popoi (Le Matin) – a rather voyeuristic 1892 picture of a woman pictured during her morning ablutions – was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $39.2 million. This success came shortly after the sale of Maternité (II), 1899, a late work in which a trio of idealized native women are mirrored by a trio of strong greens, oranges and blues. After Gauguin's death in 1903, the painting was bought by a French naval officer for 150 francs. The officer shipped it back to France packed between two shirts. In 2004, that work also sold for $39.2 million.
The artist appeals to collectors for many reasons: the notion of faraway havens, the bright color-schemes, the erotic connotations. But also, in part, to the painter’s renegade and uncompromising personality. Ultimately, Gauguin was his own man. “People tell me I’m not Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puvis de Chavannes – but I already know that! Why tell me?” he noted in his essay "Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter" (David Zwirner Books). He concluded: “The more I age the less I civilize myself.”