The first word that Gauguin had painted ”Where Do We Come From?” reached Europe early in 1898 in the form of an illustrated letter to his long time friend the minor painter Daniel de Monfried. In describing the work Gauguin wrote, ”It doesn’t stink of models, of technique or of pretended rules, of which I have always fought shy, though sometimes with fear.”
Gauguin was not above stretching the truth when it suited his purposes. Consequently, the publication of ”Noa Noa” , his potboiler account of Tahitian experiences and impressions, in no way dispelled anyone’s ignorance of either the ”Fragrant Isle” or his life there. Except for Papeete, Gauguin informed the world at large, Tahiti was an unspoiled paradise, and he himself was able to live there as a ‘,true savage, a genuine Maori”. The book itself was cribbed copiously and carelessly from an out of date and frequently inaccurate work by a French businessman named Moerenhout. Bengt Danielsson noted that virtually nothing remained of the ancient Tahiti religion and mythology and few natives, even when sober, could remember the names of their old pagan gods. No native art, with the exception of tourist handicrafts, had been produced since 1800, and there were fewer carvings of Tahitian idols left in the colony than could be found in the ethnological museums of Europe.
Gauguin was constantly torn between the polarities of the spirit and the flesh. Where as his illusory literary endeavors smelt of Chateaubriand’s meeting with North American natives, Gauguins, state of mind could have been lifted from Joseph Conrad’s ”Heart of Darkness” set in Africa. In the Tahitian paintings that lead up to Gauguin’s ”spiritual testament” Where Do We Come from?, certain loosly religious motifs occur and recur. There is, for instance,the Biblical Eve in her island incarnation, Hina the moon-goddess, whom he liked to depict because she was mother of the gods and of the whole human race, but who seemed mostly to be the patron idol of the artist’s imagination.
For Hina is as much a creation of his dream tropics as were the snake charmers of Henri Rousseau’s jungles. She appears in various guises in many of Gauguin’s works, including wood carvings with their marked Javanese influences. In the ”Ancestors of Tehamana” Gauguin alloed his teenage ”vahine” , whom he usually equated with Eve, to pose in mission approved attire. But, he surrounded her with pagan devices, including a figure that is possibly Hina, but this time Hindu derived. In ”The Moon and the Earth”, an enigmatic treatment of a myth in which a maiden like Hina, the moon, and Fatou, the earth, debate whether man shall be accorded immortality.
Gauguin never specifically identified the idol in the background left in ”Where Do We Come From?” but its similarity to his Hina wood sculpture is unmistakeable. while its somewhat lunar coloration is appropriate to her. Finally, in the person of the modest young girl in ”Words of the Devil”,Eve crops up once more, apparently pondering the blandishments of the enigmatic figure squatting behind her. She will succumb of course. In an odd twist, Gauguin may have projected himself as Eve, a jealous and bad tempered Eve, insupportable in her suffering and unable to attain the purity of the ”savage” after her fall from grace.
Gauguin attempted to be a savage, but was too deeply anchored in the Christian faith, despite his bohemian lifestyle. What Eden there was, was within him, like a messianic vision of a paradise lost that he hoped to recover.His ” savage nature” was as thin as the canvas he painted on, also an edenic dream composed in two dimensions sitting before his hut, but lacking the means to catalyze the two through a kinetic element in his work. Given his circumstances it is no wonder that the Eden he painted is pervaded by melancholy, but not entirely devoid of faith and hope, and it was the inablity to extricate these latter characteristics that drove him, like captain Ahab in pursuit of the whale, to capture all his many rumination on the riddle of existence as visual art.