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Gunning for Gauguin

Published: 2:17PM Thursday June 17, 2010 Source: AAP

  •  (Source: Reuters)
    Source: Reuters

Everybody in French Polynesia has a story about Paul Gauguin.

Works by the French post-impressionist painter, who found his spiritual home in Tahiti, are priceless today.

But not so long ago it wasn't unusual for his paintings to be burnt by locals who considered his depictions of topless Polynesian women pornographic.

There would be a lot of millionaires in French Polynesia today if they'd all just hung onto those original Gauguins, says to Brenda Chinfoo, the manager of Tahiti's Gauguin Museum.

There are no originals at the museum near Taravao, about an hour's drive from Papeete, but that will change when renovations begin in July to bring the museum up to world standard.

The Tahitian government will spend 200 million French Polynesian francs on the badly neglected building, set in a 137-hectare, Tiki-dotted botanical garden by the sea, which was established by American botanist Harrison Smith between 1919-21.

Tahitian private collectors have only four authentic Gauguin paintings but they will be loaned to the museum when it is renovated.

The museum was established in 1965 with a grant from the Singer Foundation.

The gardens include two tortoises from the Galapagos Islands - 150 and 200 years old - obtained in the 1940s.

Among the museum's collection are three wooden spoons Gauguin carved, authentic lithographs and letters and two ceramics. There's also a model of his home in Atuona, Hiva Oa.

Gauguin, a French stockbroker who also had Inca blood, was the grandson of feminist Flora Tristan, a defender and supporter of French mine workers.

In his younger years was a seaman in the French imperial navy and travelled widely.

In 1891 at the age of 43, he left his wife and five children to set sail in search of the roots of primitive art - landing in Tahiti after a journey that took him through Melbourne, Sydney and Noumea.

He lived at Mataiea with his 14-year-old mistress, Teha'amana, for a year and returned to France in 1893 with a collection of paintings and woodcarvings.

His exhibition flopped and he returned to Tahiti two years later, this time poorer and infected with a sexually transmitted infection.

Finding a French art dealer, he continued to paint and took Tahitian mistresses, living in different parts of French Polynesia including Punaauia.

He died on May 8, 1903 aged 55, his body found at his home on the Marquesas Islands, where he is buried.

A local civil servant apparently wrote there was little hope of repaying his debts: "The few pictures left by the late painter ... have little prospect of finding purchaser."

Chinfoo says the painter sowed his seeds widely throughout Polynesia.

"If you did his genealogy you would have to add Polynesian children," she says.

"Of what we know there are five. In the Marquesas they all say,'He was my grandfather'."

Chinfoo believes one of these was a beggar at the Papeete markets, who claimed he was Gauguin's grandson and would draw pictures on coconuts.

"His descendants here got nothing. Nobody recognised his art. He had syphilis, was an alcoholic," she says.

"In the Marquesas he had been wounded - his leg was broken and he hard an open wound....Nobody liked him.

"Here we are in a place surrounded by beauty, but they didn't have the culture of art. Nobody cared about this art.

"The grandfather of my husband was Chinese, a wealthy man... Gauguin used to come and visit. My grandmother would say, `go away' because he smells.

"She would burn the paintings to heat the water. Many people have burnt the paintings.

"Most of the paintings were bought by men. When women saw nude women they would burn them because they thought it was pornographic."

says Gauguin considered himself a "pioneer making his future in new territories".

He had been sponsored by the French government to study and paint Tahiti's costumes and landscapes and arrived when Tahiti's last king Pomare V had just died.

However, he was disappointed by the corrupting effects of colonisation on the country. He wrote to his wife, "Our missionaries have already imported much hypocrisy and they are sweeping away part of the poetry."

Chinfoo points to a print of one of his paintings of women, saying the great artist painted them as they were, not some European ideal of Polynesian women.

"We haven't changed. We still have the same attitude. We sit like this with the dog on the beach.

"At the time how could these people appreciate these paintings? Women with big legs. They didn't correspond to their idea of beauty."

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