Mahu on the Beach

Greg Dening

  • Gauguin’s Skirt by Stephen Eisenman
    Thames and Hudson, 232 pp, £19.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 500 01766 2

‘Soyez mysterieuses,’ Paul Gauguin had carved into the lintel of his last residence in the South Seas, the ‘House of Pleasure’, or ‘House of Orgasm’, as some would translate Maison du Jouir. ‘I am not a painter who copies nature – today less than before. With me everything happens in my crazy imagination.’ In September 1901, at the urging of that crazy imagination, Gauguin had left Tahiti. The simple savages he looked for were no longer there. They were to be found, he thought, in the Marquesas. At Atuona, on the island of Hiva Oa, he built his House of Pleasure.

Colour, he was saying in his letters at the time, was the instrument of his imagination. Colour itself was a language, ‘a profound mysterious language, a language of the dream’. The ideas of painting did not need words. Colour, with much the same vibrations as music, activated the more general meanings in what was being represented. Colour drew out the interior force of things. Riders on the Beach, one of Gauguin’s last paintings, has the feeling of a dream. The colours make it so. The beach was at Atuona; Gauguin would drive down to it in his horse and trap, unable to walk for the pain in his suppurating, syphilitic legs. His paintings in these last days were of faces without laughter, of naked women clothed in their own nightmares. He painted Nativity scenes in which sexuality and virginity were foil to one another. He painted men with a feminine mien, women with other-worldly power in their eyes. Death and religious myth were his preoccupations. Indeed, Daniel de Monfried, his chief correspondent in these last days, wrote to him that, out on the margins of civilisation, he was dead already, and a legend for that. Down on the black sands at Atuona, Gauguin was painting Riders on the Beach.

For all his sense of savage freedom at the ends of the earth, he stationed the six horses on the beach in ways in which he had seen his friend Degas position the animals in Racehorses at Longchamps. He had reproductions of Dürer’s etching Knight, Death and the Devil and a copy of a frieze from the Parthenon back in the studio of his House of Pleasure. They are present in Riders on the Beach as well. Two hooded riders – death on horseback – lead the other horsemen to an endless horizon. There is nothing ‘real’ in the painting, no black sand, no dark tumbling rocks, no closed bay. Differences are sponged out in his consuming effort to make mythic and universal this art by the last savage of the last savages.

If we had stood behind the canvas and looked over Gauguin’s shoulder as he painted, everywhere behind the beach at Atuona we would have seen empty stone remains – stone platforms on which houses had once stood, stone stages on which people had once danced and feasted, stone altars in sacred places where sacrifices had been left. Overgrown and silent, they were scattered among the trees, all along the valley. They were relics of populations wiped out in the few short years of their encounter with Euro-American strangers. Diseases to which they had no immunity killed most, but others died more horribly, in a cultural paroxysm. When they had no explanation of why they were dying in such horrific numbers, they turned to killing one another, suspecting sorcery and machination. In the middle of the 19th century, after their hopeless efforts at conversion, the missionaries on Hiva Oa had focused on destruction of the tapu system which they believed was the key to native heathenism. They promised that the dying would stop if the evil of the tapu was broken. They evolved a series of rituals by which the most strictly observed tapu were broken as a challenge to the native gods to punish the breach. Men were asked to walk under women’s most intimate clothing. Women were asked to walk over the most sacred objects. The result was not so much change as emptiness and listlessness. Enata (the natives) were numb for a while, with liquor and anomie.

Then in the 1860s, in the valley of Atuona, there was a terrible revival of an old tapu custom, e ika, fishing for victims. E ika had been practised in times of social crisis or in celebration of some sacred moment in the lives of Enata. It consisted in raiding, or fishing, for victims, heana, in other valleys or on other islands. Enata snatched heana where they could, off the shore or from their houses, and brought them back to their valley, dead or dying, but always in the fashion in which they brought home a catch of their most tapu fish: strung on poles, with large hooks in the mouths and baskets of bait attached to the bodies. The corpses were mocked and played with and parts ceremonially eaten. Then they were strung up with other sacrifices in the me’ae, the sacred spaces of the gods.

In the cultural hopelessness of the 1860s, any rebirth of custom would be bastard. The revival of e ika was monstrous. Whatever balancing principles there had been to the death and violence of the old ways were now gone. This time, the killings had no ritual. They were not carried out in other valleys or on other islands. They were internecine, familial even, and orgiastic. In a population depleted in fifty years from a hundred thousand to three thousand, they now killed one another by the hundreds. Native Hawaiian missionaries-who had played no part in the conversion-by-destruction rituals – looked on with horror. The bare facts recorded in their journals make awful reading: 15 June 1861, Tiviuta of Atuona slain and eaten; 12 August 1862, Titwehi of the Etuoha cooked by Atuona and eaten, ten saved; 30 August 1862, Tutepuu of Atuona cooked by Hanamenu; 19 December 1864, Titihai cooked by Atuona people; 26 October 1865, Ohaihai of Hanetetuua cooked in Atuona; 4 January 1866, Houpo of Haamau cooked in Atuona; 25 May 1866, Pehitumoe of Haamau eaten by Atuona.

Then there were the killings without the ‘cooking’: of women by men, men by women, mothers by sons, sons by fathers, infants by adults, young by old, old by young. The death throes of the valley of Atuona were awful. It was and is today a place of extraordinary beauty, the sort of wild beauty that Gauguin ached to find. The peak of Temetiu dominates it. The wide sweeping southern arm of its bay bends out into the straits towards the neighbouring island of Tahuata. Its black sand beach collects the waves coming in on the south-east winds. Its river sparkles over a bed of stones. But its silence clings. Among the ruined platforms, altars and stages, Gauguin’s imagination does not seem so crazy, and his admonition to ‘be mysterious’ not so irresponsible. His cowled riders of death have a monkish feel, enough to remind us how much death those who preached eternal life had brought. The wash of his colours reminds us that any representation of the past will have a dreamlike quality. The past has its own silences that will never be voiced.

The voicelessness of both an indigenous past and an indigenous present has been almost an assumption of Oceanic studies. The Fatal Impart was Alan Moorehead’s famous metaphor for it. But everywhere, not just in the Pacific, there has been a resurrection: histories now are of resistance, not just of that open resistance mercilessly crushed by empires, but of that hidden resistance which preserved native identities in a new idiom. ‘Reinvented tradition’ has been spurned as an offensive phrase in these circumstances. Creative aboriginality is better. Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha in their subaltern studies have shown how it is done. Now, in a remarkable book with a remarkable title, Stephen Eisenman argues that Gauguin caught a glimpse of Tahitian and Marquesan creative aboriginality, savoured it, transformed it into a new primitivity and re-presented it in his art. It is a bold thesis, made bolder by Eisenman’s own experiences of Tahitian post-colonial and anti-nuclear resistance, although perhaps a little over-earnest in its claims of originality. There is nothing in it that has not been pondered on in some way by scholars and critics who have gone before him. But there is nothing romantic in it either. Eisenman does not hide from the racist contradictions and the lecherous paedophilic self-deceptions that abound in Gauguin. What he explores more sensitively than most is Gauguin’s relativising experiences on his beach.

These began in the very first moments of Gauguin’s arrival in Tahiti. Costume was always important to him. It was his trickster’s disguise, his theatrical wardrobe. Its eccentricity entertained a civilised world to his wildness. When he stepped off the ship in Tahiti, however, under the gaze of a native audience, his appearance was taken to mean something else. The Tahitians laughed out loud at his Wild Bill Hickok stetson and the hair cascading over his shoulders from under it. ‘Taata vahine,’ they shouted. ‘Man-woman.’ Then, for comfort in his hideaway from Papeete’s colonial urbanism, he took to wearing a woman’s wrap-around skirt. This was Gauguin’s limen and the emblem of his own liminality – his beach within a Tahitian beach. Tahitians knew how to deal with men-women. Mahu, they called them. They laughed without cruelty at mahu. Mahu entertained them to their dimorphic understanding of gender. They felt comfortable with mahu.

It is Eisenman’s thesis that Gauguin’s liminality served him well. It helped him see a different order of things. That is what Tahitian wildness was, a different order of things in which the oppositions that held in a civilised world – between human and divine, living and dead, male and female, child and adult, landscape and person – did not operate. In his paintings, Gauguin mediated these oppositions, made them mysterious, enlarged them with his crazy imagination. He did this with colour, imported mythology, symbol and the mysterious titles of his paintings.

The 103 illustrations and seven colour plates in Gauguin’s Skirt are the lavish visual images of Eisenman’s thesis. All of them, of course, are the objects of argument and counter-argument among Gauguin specialists. Probably Eisenman’s treatment of Mana’o tupapa’u (The Spectre Watches over Her) will be the most enraging. This nude child, whether a fiction of Gauguin’s prurient imagination or a fact of his paedophilic tendencies, lies prone on her stomach. Her body – at least to those who have seen the original painting – is full of desire, her eyes full of fear. For those outraged by Gauguin’s colonialist exploitations and his male sexual aggression, Mana’o tupapa’u is the most disturbing painting of all. But the boyishness of her figure and the nakedness of her desire suggest to Eisenman that the nude child is taata-vahine, man-woman, a primitive mirror of the mahu in Gauguin himself. The fear in her eyes? It is more a vision that crosses in a very Tahitian way the boundaries of life and death, spirit and flesh, sacred and profane.

Where do we come from? (in such a criticism) What are we? (in this debate) Where are we going? (with such an analysis). The world doesn’t need my inexpert answer to the questions borrowed from the title of one of Gauguin’ most mysterious paintings. But perhaps I can add a few words to Eisenman’s conversation about Gauguin’s liberating experiences on the beach in the Marquesas. When he reached the ends of his earth at Atuona, Gauguin was at his furious best – an insurgent against the Church, against the colonial administration. He gained the kind of entry into Enata society that he had never managed into Maohi society in Tahiti. He never really gained a friend – taio in more ancient terms – in Tahiti. In the Marquesas he did. The respect for tuhuna – specialist craftsmen – had always been high in the Marquesas, especially for carvers of images. Gauguin made an icon for his insurgency. He carved Father Lechery, a public joke at the expense of his episcopal enemy. Tioka, his friend in Atuona, saw in Gauguin tuhuna skills, and offered him his name. E inoa, name-exchange, was a ritual of deep significance. Missionaries, explorers, traders, administrators scoffed at what they saw as greedy opportunism in acquiring European property. But in Enata’s eyes, person, role, status and relationships were exchanged in the course of a name-exchange. It was a reciprocal gift not readily given. By exchanging his name with Tioka, Gauguin established himself on his beach in a way that gave him rights and obligations that he never had in Tahiti. Then the generosity with which he met his obligations, after a flood in the village, bound him to Enata comfortably.

Eisenman focuses on the paintings which reflect the androgynous scenes that Gauguin saw. There is one he doesn’t comment on, Woman with Fan. We have a photograph of this woman, Tohotaua, posing in much the way Gauguin painted her. Behind her on the walls of the House of Pleasure were prints and paintings and photographs. They were the archive of Gauguin’s past artistic experience, on which he drew at Atuona. Tohotaua had auburn hair. Four hundred years earlier, the Spanish had seen Enata with red hair. Red was their most sacred colour, joining human and divine. Down through the generations red-haired women were especially revered. The suffix tau’a in Tohotaua’s name was a sign of her special status. Men and women who owned that title were deemed inspired. They were mediators between Enata and the gods. They were sorcerers too. Gossip had it that Gauguin was Tohotaua’s lover. That is not what Tohotaua would have called him. Because of who she was, she would have called him pekio, secondary husband, a man who had feminised himself, exchanged his male tapu status, so that he could have access to a powerful woman. Marquesan society has been called polyandrous because of the pekio. We have to wonder if Gauguin knew how liminal he was and whether his ego would have allowed him to cross his beach so explicitly.

Today, Gauguin’s grave in the cemetery on the hill above Atuona is easily recognised. Amid bare white tombs glaring in the sun, his is of reddish rocks and is shaded by a frangipani tree. Jacques Brel’s grave is nearby. Both look over the waters between Hiva Oa and Tahuata. The Spaniards sailed those waters four hundred years ago, and killed by their own account two hundred natives, not so much for their resistance to dispossession, as because the killing didn’t really matter: the devil took those he was ordained to take a little earlier than they would have liked. One of Gauguin’s final wishes was granted 75 years after his death. The cast of a favourite work, a ceramic sculpture he had called Oviri, was placed on his grave. Oviri was a favourite of Picasso, too, and inspired him. Gauguin had sculpted Oviri in Brittany on his return to France after his first trip to Tahiti, just before the terrible brawl that left him with a damaged leg. Gauguin thought it his finest work. He knew it was enigmatic, mysterious. Oviri in Tahitian means ‘wild’, ‘savage’. The woman of the statue is indeed wild, a mixture of incompatible lore. She has the head of a mummified Marquesan skull. She crushes a wolf under her feet, just as those most unwild statues of the Virgin crush a serpent. Gauguin put his customary signature on the statue, ‘PGO’. That reads as pégo. It is sailors’ slang for ‘prick’, Oviri’s wildness creates a disturbing restlessness over the grave. One cannot think that Gauguin’s bones rest in peace.