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Vairumati (Paul Gauguin)
Paul Gauguin , 1897
Oil on canvas
73 × 94 cm
Musée d'Orsay

Vairumati is a painting measuring 73 × 94 cm that Henri Eugene Paul Gauguin painted in oil on canvas in 1897 during his second stay in Tahiti . It depicts an island resident, posing on a sumptuous chair.

Analysis inherent in the work

In the center of the picture is a richly decorated and gold-colored chair with a wide seat, which together with the Tahitian woman sitting on it makes up a large part of the picture. This is also due to the fact that she is not in the center of the chair, but leans on it, leaning to the right. Her clothing probably consists only of a wrapped, gray cloth that only slightly covers her legs, which protrude into the lower right edge of the picture. As in most of Gauguin's Tahitian works, this figure is shown bare-chested.

Another important part of the picture is a symbolic bird on the left edge of the picture in the lower half of the picture, which is characterized by a light yellow plumage and a head with an orange beak. With his claws he holds on to a black lizard that is pressed to the ground under him.

In the upper right corner of the picture - further back in the picture - there are two more Tahitian girls crouching one behind the other on the floor. Since both, and especially the left of the two Tahitian women, are partially covered by the chair in the foreground, their activities cannot be clearly defined. It can be stated, however, that the clothing of the Tahitian woman closer to the edge of the picture resembles the covering of the girl sitting in the foreground. At the very back of the picture, Gauguin painted a relatively monotonous vegetation of yellow and green bushes to limit the view.

Typical of Paul Gauguin is also in Vairumati existing space . On the one hand, the proportions are largely correct, which can be proven, for example, in the reduced Tahitian women in the background. However, it is difficult to determine whether the reduction is really correct, especially since one can only guess the depth of the room. There are also overlaps that create spatiality in the picture, such as the chair that partially covers the girls sitting further back, or the foremost Tahitian woman who hides parts of the chair.

An application of the color-air perspective cannot be ascertained in the picture, but this may also be related to the fact that the picture does not represent a landscape that can be seen from far, but rather a rather limited space.

On the other hand, Gauguin correctly applied the base point position . The Tahitian women further back in the picture and the vegetation in the background are shifted upwards. This effect may also have something to do with the perspective from which Gauguin viewed and painted the motifs.

This painting is rather not a sfumato , as blurring is characterized by blurry transitions between the image components. Everything that comes close to a sfumato in Vairumati is the increasingly lower density of details towards the rear, which is particularly noticeable when comparing the bushes at the back and the chair. While the vegetation is only represented by many, simple brushstrokes, the pattern of the upholstery and the engravings in the back of the chair are more detailed.

There is a certain plasticity in the picture, which is created by shading, which, however, seems more arbitrary than systematically added. Some motifs even seem to be completely independent of the relationship between light and shadow. This can be seen above all in the example of the bird on the left edge of the picture. Shading is to be fixed at most under the left wing.

The materiality of the motifs of the picture exhibited today in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris is also difficult to discern. The perception of the fabrics is caused by the association in the two-dimensional shapes shown and not by the precision in the application of paint. For example, Gauguin depicted folds in the primitive, beige-colored clothing of the Tahitian women, which leave a textile-like impression. Without the folds, i.e. solely through the color, one could hardly have made out the material quality here. Further motifs, the materiality of which is difficult to identify, are the bird's plumage, which could not be identified as such without the context, and the lizard's skin, which is shown as flat black instead of scaly. In contrast, the depiction of the probably gilded chair is more realistic. With the lighter areas on the back of the chair, Gauguin creates the impression of a shiny, golden surface.

The drawing details of the picture Vairumati are very limited. With the exception of the chair with its decorations, the rest of the picture motifs are shown in very undefined detail, which is common for abstract painting. Although it is difficult to determine the distances between the individual image components, the existing proportions are largely correct. The proportions of the Tahitian women also make a largely naturalistic impression. Regarding the color in the painting Vairumati, it can be said that the picture is predominantly dominated by brown, yellow and orange tones, which were applied more flat than mixed with one another. A green stripe in the right half of the upper edge of the picture serves as a strong contrast. On the basis of the results it can be concluded that the painting style goes into abstraction and, because of the symbols it contains, is related to symbolism , the art style that Gauguin himself developed.

Analysis and meaning of the picture components

The role of the Vairumati

If you look at the composition of the motifs in Vairumati , the question arises as to what intention the painter was pursuing. The answer is obvious and may shed some light on Gauguin's largely anti-colonialist attitudes.

The picture is named after an islander from oceanic mythology, who was given as a gift to the god of war Oro when he visited the island.

Looking at Tahiti's past, a parallel can be drawn that may shed light on Gauguin's testimony. When the first colonists came to Tahiti in 1767 under the British officer and captain Samuel Wallis , the ship's crews were offered a downright “heavenly” impression (Calmels, 1994, p. 89) of the completely un-European way of life of the island people. The predominantly male colonists were particularly enthusiastic about the sexual permissiveness of the Tahitian women. This surprisingly open-hearted behavior, which the Tahitian people cultivated, can be connected with the fact that the Europeans who reached the island in huge ships, based on the mythological Oro, were made equal to god. Thus the Vairumati in Gauguin's painting would be symbolic of the exploited, female people of Tahiti. It is also known that Gauguin strongly criticized the colonists' ruthless conduct.

However, even the artist probably could not imagine what devastating effects the colonial era would actually have on the Tahitian people. The unwanted import of several diseases, such as syphilis , measles and smallpox , as well as the introduction of alcohol, decimated Tahiti, which was initially estimated to have a population of 150,000, to a mere 8,000 indigenous people by 1830. In addition to this dramatic development, missionaries displaced a large part of the original culture from 1797, spread European morality and Christianity, which Paul Gauguin noticed at an early stage.

It is doubtful that the artist denounced the freedom of movement for women, especially since he was allowed to experience this several times himself. Furthermore, the painting seems too harmonious and too attractive in its entirety to show such a profound grievance. Accordingly, the role of Vairumati in the painting is more of a pictorial representation of his admiration for beautiful Tahitian women.

The role of the strange bird and the lizard

In order to find out why Gauguin depicted this seemingly symbolic motif in Vairumati , one must consider his psyche at the time and look far beyond the coast of Tahiti.

As an introduction, it is interesting to note that birds in general find adherence to a variety of religions and mythologies. It is likely that Gauguin was influenced by his own religion, Christianity , in depicting the bird in the picture . Most people are familiar with the image of the dove with the olive branch in its beak . The origin of this image can be found in the Bible , in Genesis, chapter 8, 6–12.

The well-known story goes that Noah , who, on God's behalf, built a huge ark to enable every single species of animal to survive in the face of the impending flood . Long after the great flood, when the earth was still under water, Noah sent out a pigeon one day to find out whether there was a piece of land somewhere in the world again. When the dove finally returned with an olive branch in its beak, Noah knew that there was hope for him and his animal passengers, and that God had forgiven people for their sins.

Seen symbolically, this bird with the branch still stands for hope and peace.

Similar to the biblical dove, the dove also plays a positive role in Greek mythology , as it was often used as an attribute for the goddesses of love.

The representation of the bird in the painting Vairumati reveals a victory over the lizard below her. If one now assumes that the bird stands for good, one would have to conclude that the lizard beneath it symbolizes evil. It could perhaps be compared to the Old Testament serpent that led Adam and Eve to eat an apple from the tree forbidden by God. This shows that the snake was assigned a negative role opposite to that of the bird.

Similar features can be found in oceanic mythology, i.e. the mythology of the South Pacific Ocean, in which Tahiti is also located.

According to legend , the origin of all humanity lies in a huge bird egg, which was hatched by the legendary snake Ndegei. When the shell of the egg finally shattered and people emerged from the fragments, from then on they possessed a divine, good and an earthly, evil part.

Here the bird that laid the original egg embodies good, whereas the snake embodies evil again.

Another oceanic legend tells

from the earlier humans who were able to shed their skin so as not to age. However, one day when a mother was no longer recognized by her own children after a molt, she decided to put her old skin back on, which was strictly forbidden. The punishment for humans now was to make it impossible for them to shed their skin. Thus death came into life for all people, since they could no longer practice the act of rejuvenation.

It is possible that Gauguin was familiar with this myth , especially since he had learned a lot about Tahitian mythology from his lover Tehura. He painted the picture Vairumati when he was already suffering from severe physical discomfort. Possibly the defeated lizard under the bird symbolizes the impossibility of a mythological molt and thus the hopelessness of recovery from its wounds and illnesses.

The most plausible explanation of Paul Gauguin's intention with the subject of the picture lies elsewhere. To answer this question, you have to consider another painting by the artist on the one hand and the mythology of a far-off country on the other. Shortly before his suicide attempt in 1898, Gauguin painted the important work Where do we come from, far removed from any civilization . Who are we? Where are we going? , which shows the life of an islander from birth to death.

The most remarkable aspect of the painting is that the same symbol of the bird and the lizard, which Gauguin first depicted in Vairumati , can also be found here in the lower left half of the picture. It closes the picture here in that it can be found as the last motif after the strongly aged Tahitian woman. On the one hand, the oceanic myth can be related to this image, which treats the mortality of humans depending on the prohibition of molting. In addition, the aged woman is literally reminiscent of the Gauguin of the 90s, a mentally and physically suffering man who waited depressed for death.

In 1898 Gauguin wrote a few sentences regarding the motifs in his work Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going? :

"A strange white bird, a lizard between the claws, symbolizes the nothingness of empty words."

This passage largely provides information about the bird's intention; it also points to Gauguin's soon increasingly indifferent attitude. The term “strange” leaves some questions unanswered, the answers to which one has to look elsewhere. Looking at Gauguin's constitution, one can draw a connection between the symbol of the bird and the lizard and a god figure from Indian mythology . One can assume that Gauguin was inspired by the legendary Garuda, a person friendly to humans, who was often depicted as a person with a bird's head and wings. Garuda, like so many other birds, symbolizes the good and is therefore a friend to humans. What is particularly noticeable is that it says:

Garuda fights snakes that prevent people from ascending to a higher and non-earthly plane of existence, such as physical, but not spiritual, death.

This myth can be perfectly related to Gauguin's last years. It is known that after his unsuccessful suicide attempt, the mentally ailing artist accepted his fate in an indifferent way and waited depressed for his death. If this theory is correct about the symbolism of the motif, then the bird in Where Are We From? Who are we? Where are we going? and also in Vairumati , similar to the biblical dove of peace , be a symbol of hope.