Gauguin's escape, Matisse's chase, by Tristan Rutherford
Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, October 2019
On December 23rd 1888, in the southern French city of Arles, painter Paul Gauguin was involved in a street fight. His opponent was fellow artist Vincent van Gogh. That same night the Dutch master chopped off his ear and presented it to a brothel that both he and Gauguin frequented. The following day, Christmas Eve, van Gogh was committed to an asylum. Despite the festive period Gauguin left Arles very, very quickly. He never returned.
In truth Gauguin was a chancer, womaniser and eternal escapee. When referring to his South American upbringing he claimed himself “a savage from Peru”. Ever keen for maritime adventure, he took full advantage of the Republic of France’s policy to repatriate all Frenchmen who couldn’t afford a steamer home - usually by becoming a penniless artist in Martinique, Panama, or whichever port he washed up in.
Gauguin’s quest for the quixotic led to him to Tahiti. Over passing years the island had been espoused by explorers Louis de Bougainville, Captain Cook and Fletcher Christian. Like early editions of Condé Nast Traveller, each expedition regaled Edenic tales of giant turtles, fragrant frangipani and comely young locals. Indeed Fletcher Christian’s shipmates were so heartbroken to leave this Adam and Eve paradise that they mutinied on the HMS Bounty a few weeks later. (The film of the mutiny, starring Marlon Brando, was filmed on the nearby arcadia of Bora Bora.)
In Gauguin’s time, the passage to Polynesia called at every French colony en route. That meant the artist had to travel in style aboard L'Océanien, a 130m postal steamer built in La Ciotat near St Tropez. According to Noa Noa, Gauguin's journal from Tahiti, it took "sixty three days of feverish expectancy" to cruise from Marseille. The route journeyed through the newly opened Suez Canal, the Seychelles, Réunion, Mauritius and New Caledonia - a fabulous itinerary for any superyacht today. L'Océanien’s passenger list also tallies with those of contemporary guests: captains of industry, landowners and fugitives of all persuasions.
Alas the Tahitian capital of Papeete was as Gallic as a camembert baguette. Tahiti had become a French possession a decade previously. In quick succession followed the accoutrements of electricity, gramophones, religious rigidity and pastis à cinq heures. Gauguin’s long hair also caused a stir. Locals nicknamed him ‘Taata-vahine’ or ‘man-woman’. After three months he fled 45km to the village of Papeari, where nowadays a botanical garden drips wild bananas and bamboo forests into a turquoise sea. Here Gauguin set himself up in a bamboo cabin to rediscover his base best: to dream, love, drink and paint.
Papeari proved a font of creativity. The artistic output was pure Gauguin: rampant, sensual and guaranteed to shock fusty colons. The rainbow canvas Fatata te Miti (By the Sea) features nude bathers cavorting with carefree abandon in a tropical lagoon. Manao tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching) depicts the artist's young Tahitian wife reclining on her stomach, naked buttocks poised, on a makeshift divan. Prose from his Noa Noa diaries captures the artist’s sybaritic mood: “The women crouched in the water with their skirts raised to waist. Thus cleansed with the bosom erect and with the two shells covering the breasts...they again took up the way to Papeete.”
Declining wealth and health carried Gauguin from Papeete back to Paris. The trip home wasn’t a success. Gauguin took to dressing in exotic Polynesian costumes while his sensuous paintings were mocked by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His alleged case of syphilis would have been treated with mercury, further poisoning the ageing artist. Fellow painter Edgar Degas purchased four canvases, allowing Gauguin to escape the fusty confines of Europe for good. Back in Tahiti he combined bank loans with erratic moods to create semi-religious masterstrokes. Like D'où Venons Nous (Where Do We Come From), which trailblazes a path among impressionism, cubism, fauvism and last-orders-at-the-bar abandon.
Following a life pattern, the 52-year-old Gauguin fled a final time. This time on a five day sail across an aquamarine Pacific to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. Despite passing Apataki, a 30km coral island awash with rays, and Rangiroa, the second largest atoll in the world, Gauguin’s base level sank lower. He decorated the walls of his island hovel with pornographic images purchased in Suez. And erected totem poles lampooning the island’s Catholic bishop and his mistress; one of these sculptures later sold at Christie’s in New York for $31m.
An ankle injury sustained during another boozy brawl was treated with arsenic. Other ailments were treated with morphine. After Gauguin passed in spring 1903, his bold, primeval, page-leaping creations were displayed in a retrospective at Paris’s Salon d'Automne. Young attendees like Pablo Picasso and Albert Marquet were awe-struck by the earthly pleasures and vivid colours of the South Seas.
Among the exhibitors inspired by the 1903 Salon d'Automne was a young artist named Henri Matisse. This Frenchman soon became a fauve, the ‘wild beasts’ of European art who valued zany colours over pictorial representation. (Much of the Fauves’ Day-Glo work, featuring magenta sails and booby bathers, was painted between St Tropez and the Cap d’Antibes.) By 1930 Matisse was the old man of impressionism, residing in a mansion on Nice’s Cours Saleya - with rheumatic neurosis in both arms. An idea sprang to mind. If Tahiti could rejuvenate an ailing Gauguin, could it also reinvent an escaping Matisse?
Matisse enjoyed a five-star voyage to the Polynesian sun. The transatlantic liner Ile de France, built in Saint-Nazaire like many of today’s luxury yachts, carried the painter to New York. Onboard first class guests could utilise both a shooting range and a neo-gothic chapel. A catapult-launched seaplane - the Bell Jet Ranger of its day - could be launched a day before arrival, ensuring hotel bookings and letters of introduction were received before disembarkation. Matisse enjoyed his first cream soda in Manhattan. Then the diesel engines of the Santa Fe railroad hauled the Frenchman to San Francisco in three days. Before a vintage British mailship, the RMS Tahiti, chugged the final 10 days through the South Seas.
It was a journey to write home about. En route Matisse noted the Pacific Ocean’s colour change from deep navy to azure. On arrival his sketchbook was soon filled with tufted coconuts, banyan limbs, hibiscus flowers and birds-of-paradise. Most enjoyable of all was a Ma’a tahiti traditional feast. Read shrimp in coconut milk, suckling pick slow-cooked on barbeque coals, clam curry and fried bananas. Then as now, life appeared effortless. He tracked down Gauguin’s son, Emile, who made his way as a simple Tahitian labourer. As Matisse recalled: “watching coconuts grow by day, fishing at night”. The artist ensured he packed black pearls and vanilla pods for gifts back home.
A yacht sortie on the French governor’s schooner was a final highlight of Matisse’s trip. First up was the Tuamotu Archipelago, the world's largest chain of coral atolls, which spans the breadth of Western Europe. Then Fakarava, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve famed for reef sharks and tuna runs. As Matisse wrote to fellow artist Pierre Bonnard back in Cannes: “Pure light, pure magic, pure colour. Diamond, sapphire, emerald, turquoise.” Matisse’s last port of call followed Gauguin’s journey to Hiva Oa, where stone tikis still guard a mere 2,000 island residents.
Did Gauguin’s voyage to Tahiti reinvent Matisse? On his return to Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in June 1930, the latter picked up his paintbrush and completed the masterpiece he postponed months before. The Yellow Dress warms the canvas like a Polynesian sunset with tropical slashes of emerald and ochre. Sailing away to paradise charms us all.
Read more global adventures from travel writers Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford.