Spotlight Essay: Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Te Atua (The Gods), 1899

Spotlight Essay: Paul Gauguin, Te Atua (The Gods), 1899
September 2016

Elizabeth C. Childs
Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Art History and chair of the Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Paul Gauguin wrestled with what he regarded as the limitations of easel painting. Even as he painted canvases with the Paris art market in mind, he simultaneously explored the expressive potential of many mediums, including printmaking, ceramics, drawing, and wood carving. His experiments in printmaking, begun in 1889, include work in etching, zincography, lithography, and monotype, but his most sustained engagement came with woodblock prints. Gauguin’s innovations in woodcut stand out both for their expressive and simplified forms and for the varying effects he achieved through the use of a variety of papers, inks, and printing and mounting techniques.

Gauguin valued prints as a vehicle to distribute his art to what he believed would be a growing circle of collectors, critics, and fellow artists. Exemplifying this aspiration is Te Atua, one of a series of fourteen woodcuts he made in Tahiti between 1898 and 1899. These are generally referred to as the Vollard suite, as he sent some thirty sets of them to Ambroise Vollard in 1900 in hopes that the entrepreneurial art dealer would promote them in Paris.1 He also intended that some could be exhibited alongside his paintings at the upcoming Exposition Universelle of 1900, a plan that did not come to fruition.

Gauguin printed Te Atua in black ink on a sheet of japan paper, a tissue-thin paper used in European printmaking since the time of Rembrandt, which was later laid down on a heavier page of watercolor paper.2 It is significant that he printed this series on japan paper. Whereas Gauguin had chosen a heavy commercial paper for his Volpini suite of zincographs in 1889,3 he selected for the Vollard series a fine-art paper, one that he would have had to import to Tahiti from France. Thus, even in his last years in Tahiti, as Gauguin complained of the islands’ colonial modernity and was preparing to retreat to the more remote Marquesas Islands, he kept the target audience of a Parisian art clientele clearly in mind.

The vertical stacking of motifs, capped by a framing arch, and the central position of its bold inscription suggest that this may be the title image in the series.4 In a narrow horizontal band at the top center, Gauguin’s initials, carved in a cartouche, claim authorship; next appear the Tahitian words Te Atua, meaning “the gods.”5 In the title and in the imagery that surrounds it, Gauguin introduced some of the central concerns of the Vollard suite: the subjects of god(s), veneration, and the enigmas of religious symbolism. The imagery is a rich fusion of Christian, Polynesian, Buddhist, and indeterminate referents, indicating the global span of his religious interests.

The scene is compressed in a friezelike shallow space under the expansive framing arch, inscribed with small cross or star forms that create the illusion of a vault of the heavens. This frame is reminiscent of the rounded vaults and arches of Romanesque churches, an earlier “primitive” form within Gauguin’s own French Catholic tradition. The arch frames a decidedly non-French figure, however—a monumental head that in its facial features may be read, albeit ambiguously, as Polynesian. If so, one literate with the Tahitian pantheon would readily associate it with Ta’aroa, the supreme creator god. But part of the power of this print is that clear identifications of its imagery are elusive, and the large head, highlighted by flowing white hair and a sober countenance, may also be read as a godhead that declares its authority simply through its iconic profile, monumental scale, and dominant position over the scene that plays out below. Like Gauguin’s Parisian viewers, we may surmise that it is a god without knowing its precise identity.

The scene is bordered at the left by a woman and infant whose halos clearly identify them as the Madonna and Christ Child. The woman bows her head slightly toward the center ground, which is occupied by a figure as grotesque as Mary is graceful.6 This gender-ambiguous deity unites the realms of earth and sky: its impossibly long, curving torso echoes the snake below, while its flowing white hair and bold profile repeat features of the god hovering in the heavens above. The scene invites comparison to the Christian nativity, in which angels and kings pay homage in the stable, but this figure is neither angelic nor Magus-like in countenance; rather, Mary and Jesus confront a being of divine equivalence, perhaps again the Tahitian creator god Ta’aroa, who rules the upper domain of the image. Offering symmetrical balance to Mary, a female figure at far right holds up her hand in a gesture of reverence, or at least in acknowledgment of the extraordinary encounter before her. Gauguin has adapted this pose of veneration from depictions of Buddhist figures in a frieze from the Borobudur temple, Java, known to him via a photograph.7 As he believed (erroneously) that the Polynesian people he lived among had originated from populations in southeastern Asia, Gauguin regarded the adaptation of ancient Buddhist temple reliefs as appropriate to his goal of visualizing the sacred spheres of Polynesia. Such thinking was not derived from anthropological or historical research on his part but rather from a kind of poetic affiliation that he forged between southeastern Asia, as a region whose art, he felt, bore witness to a heightened spirituality, and his current preoccupation with the religious heritage of Tahiti.

A varied animal world further populates the scene and enticingly raises the possibility of animals serving as sacred symbols. A peacock, almost equal in scale to the human figures, strides across the top of the image; the snake writhes in a small pond or field at the bottom. At the lower left corner a small dog or fox curls in a cartouche-like space that suggests a nest or den, and at the right corner a bird resembling a goose assumes a balancing position. None of these animals are likely to have been present in Gauguin’s daily life in Tahiti. Rather, they are derived from religious and classical traditions. The peacock was a long-held Catholic symbol of Christ’s resurrection and more generally of renewal, and the snake is the famous harbinger of evil in the Garden of Eden.8 The fox and bird are more diffcult to pinpoint; they might be derived from folk tales and fables that Gauguin referenced elsewhere in his art, such as the fables of Jean de La Fontaine (which offer numerous tales of foxes, rats, crows, and other animals), but no specific stories are invoked here. The white bird in particular echoes the prominent white bird in the lower left foreground of Gauguin’s monumental painting D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) of 1897–98 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

As we know from Gauguin’s letter of 1898 to the artist George-Daniel de Monfried, the bird in the canvas exemplifies the sheer inadequacy of literal interpretations: it simply “represents the futility of words,” Gauguin writes.9 As in that epic painting, the animals in Te Atua may reflect more generally Gauguin’s philosophical concern over where animals, as our fellow living creatures, fit within religious systems of meaning. In his essay “L’esprit moderne et le Catholicisme” (The Catholic Church and modern times), which he drafted in Tahiti in 1897–98 (and continued to develop until shortly before his death), he quoted a biblical verse from Ecclesiastes (3:21) that queries the fate of the spirits of animals. He also mused in the essay over where and how the soul begins, discarding the idea of any barrier that separates animal and human souls.10 Thus in both his text and his imagery, Gauguin pondered the place of humanity in relation to animal beings and to spiritual and (his own) artistic renewal.

Consonant with his interest in doctrines of theosophy, to which he had at that time been exposed for a decade, Gauguin refused to grant one traditional religious system—especially Catholicism, from his own background—primacy over others. Rather, he set symbols and personages from different world faiths in visual dialogue in an orchid-laden, Edenic landscape that is peacefully inhabited by a diverse cast of gods. Gauguin was reading, and even copying into his essay, passages from the theosophical writings of the popular English spiritualist Gerald Massey.11 Massey’s basic proposal was that all religions owed their origins to ancient myths that had been transmitted and adapted over time and that they all shared common insights into universal truths. Following such thinking, Gauguin found it appropriate to combine Christian, Polynesian, and Buddhist forms in this scene, as the gods of these religions were for him equivalent.

If, as suggested above, Te Atua is the title image in the Vollard series, it can be understood as both a scene of creation (Ta’aroa) and a foundational myth (Jesus). Some of the other prints in the series can be read as following a Christian narrative, if we read them in terms of paradise, temptation, the fall, a flight from Eden, and redemption by Christ through the crucifixion.12 It has been suggested that the scenes in these prints could be lined up in a kind of continuous frieze, so that a paradisiacal world unfolds like a scroll.13 But if we do not seek to establish narrative or a set visual order, and if we consider the sequence of the printed scenes as an interchangeable set of topoi, the series implies a fresh proposition: interchangeability as a conceptual and visual value that foregrounds Gauguin’s belief in the creative process as ongoing and open-ended.14 On a basic formal level he may have been inspired, as Elizabeth Prelinger argues, by the format of myriorama cards, a nineteenth-century parlor game in which a set of cards with different printed landscapes that shared like- scaled border motifs could be laid out by the player in any sequence. The cards could then be reordered at will to create a new scene.15

This kind of poetic flexibility, and indeed this affirmation of the creative power of both the artist and the print collector or viewer, accords well with Gauguin’s embrace of the potential of multiples. By incorporating a new participatory role for the viewer, while at the same time allowing for the power of indeterminacy, this series aligns with Le Livre, the major unfinished literary project by Gauguin’s friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who had just died in 1898.16 Mallarmé intended his project to exist perpetually in process, as a group of poems on discrete pages that could be performed or combined in different ways, thus enabling the reader to generate fresh interpretations with each reading.

This notion of the inherent flexibility of both the form and the ideas represented in a series coincides not only with the myriorama-like interchangeability of the prints in Gauguin’s Vollard series but also with his consideration of the great deities of the world religions as equal and interconnected. Buddha, Christ, and Ta’aroa could all hold equal and interchangeable places in his spiritual imagination. Similarly, individual prints in the series could be reshuffled by the artist or the viewer to suggest new narratives and to capture fresh spiritual insights with each new sequence.

In this way Te Atua and the Vollard suite more generally demonstrate that, in Gauguin’s later career, creating a series of related woodcuts aligned the materiality and format of his printed art with his most immediate spiritual concerns. These experiments negotiated the philosophical challenges of seeking elusive but fundamental connections between some of the world’s most disparate religious traditions, figures, and symbols.



I am grateful to Ellen Birch for her help with some of the research for this essay.

[1] See Tobia Bezzola and Elizabeth Prelinger, Paul Gauguin: The Prints (Zurich: Kunsthaus; New York: Prestel, 2013), 103.

[2] The print was numbered 23 (in an edition of approximately 25) by the artist in ink, lower right. In the catalogue raisonné the print is identied as number 53, state iiA. See Elizabeth Mongan, Eberhard Kornfeld, and Harold Joachim, Paul Gauguin: Catalogue Raisonné of His Prints (Bern, Switzerland: Galerie Kornfeld, 1988). Hereafter Gauguin’s prints are identified simply by their Galerie Kornfeld numbers, with a K.

[3] K1–K11.

[4] The other to bear a title inscription is K55. K54 also bears the word Tahiti inscribed vertically in the image.

[5] The title Te Atua appears as well in a print in Gauguin’s earlier Noa Noa suite of 1893–94 (K17). In that image he depicts four gods, all of whom are based on sculptures he completed in Tahiti. See Bezzola and Prelinger, Paul Gauguin, 72.

[6] Scholars have sometimes identified the figure as the Tahitian spirit Oviri. Traditionally Oviri was a female spirit of the forest connected with death. Gauguin adapted the idea to embody concepts of strangeness or savagery. See K35, K36, and the stoneware figure Oviri of 1894 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). But the relationship of that figure to the prostrate figure at the center of this print is speculative and is not supported by any strong visual resemblance. See Bezzola and Prelinger, Paul Gauguin, 105.

[7] For a reproduction of the photograph that inspired Gauguin, see Elizabeth C. Childs, Vanishing Paradise: Art and Exoticism in Colonial Tahiti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 97.

[8] Caryl Coleman, “Birds (in Symbolism),” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Appleton, 1907), /02576b.htm.

[9] Paul Gauguin, cited in George Shackelford et al., Gauguin: Tahiti (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2004), 180. The letter is reproduced on page 168.

[10] For more on this, see my essay “Catholicism and the Modern Mind: The Painter as Writer in Late Career,” in Shackelford, Gauguin, 235.

[11] The book from which Gauguin copied passages is Gerald Massey, The Natural Genesis, first published in 1883. See ibid., 230–32.

[12] K41–K55.

[13] Richard Brettell et al., The Art of Paul Gauguin (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1988), 433.

[14] Starr Figura proposes that Gauguin’s practice, evident in this series, of the reprisal and recombination of motifs taken from his earlier art foregrounds his faith in art as a process of transformation. By inviting the viewer’s intervention in the reordering of the prints in a series, Gauguin acknowledged the open-ended nature of the creative process. Figura, “Gauguin’s Metamorphoses: Repetition, Transformation, and the Catalyst of Printmaking,” in Gauguin: Metamorphoses (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014), 29, 32.

[15] Bezzola and Prelinger, Paul Gauguin, 104.

[16] Gauguin had known Mallarmé since 1890. That Gauguin was still considering the poet’s ideas, particularly regarding the power of suggestion and the irrelevance of fixed narrative, is evident from his letters of spring 1899. See Maurice Malingue, ed., Paul Gauguin: Letters to His Wife and Friends, trans. Henry Stenning (New York: World, 1949), letter 170. On Le Livre as a perpetually experimental work-in-process, see Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez, “Translators’ Note,” in Azure: Poems and Selections from the “Livre,” by Stéphane Mallarmé (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), xvi–xx.

Image Credit

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903), Te Atua (The Gods), 1899. Woodcut, 14 3/4 x 12 13/16". University purchase, Charles H. Yalem Art Fund, 2001.


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