Gauguin’s ‘child-wife’: searching for the muse that impressed a masterpiece | Fiction

Self-Portrait with Manao Tupapau by Paul Gauguin.

She lies bare, on her stomach, palms flat on the pillow. Her pores and skin is darkish as moist earth, hair black as night time. A standard Tahitian material covers the mattress, marigold yellow petals towards midnight blue. The wall behind the mattress is violet-dark with phosphorescent flashes of white. At her toes, a shadow crouches with a black shroud overlaying the pinnacle, in order that the face seems as a demise masks. This outdated lady on the younger woman’s toes is a tupapau, or spirit of the useless.

The primary time I noticed Spirit of the Lifeless Watching was in 2001 as a tiny color copy embedded inside {a magazine} article about Paul Gauguin’s life – how the French painter had left western civilisation behind with a purpose to discover an untouched world and a brand new approach of seeing. The article additionally described how he’d died of syphilis.

The woman within the portray was referred to as Teha’amana and she or he had been the “child-wife” of Gauguin, when the 43-year-old first arrived on the island of Tahiti in 1891. The artist had taken up with quite a few Tahitian ladies, who’d change into his “muses”, lovers and unofficial wives. There was Pau’ura after Teha’amana, and Vaeoho Marie-Rose within the Marquesas Islands, the place he died in 1903. He had a Danish spouse again in Europe and 5 kids, together with a daughter, roughly the identical age as Teha’amana. Like Teha’amana, Aline would die younger.

I used to be captivated by that woman, dark-skinned and bare, mendacity on the painter’s mattress, weak but highly effective. I felt an instantaneous connection to her. I knew there was an exploitative relationship on the coronary heart of the picture, between the painter and his muse, however first I wished to know who she was, what had been her fact. After I got here to put in writing my first e book, I made a decision to attempt to inform Teha’amana’s story.

However how may I ever do justice to a world and a woman who existed in a time up to now faraway from all I knew? There have been missionary accounts written throughout western contact comparable to The Journal of John Davies, Tahiti, 1816 (“And tho none did shew an inclination to return to the heathen system as such, but most of the younger folks shewed a robust inclination to return to their former diversions … marking their our bodies with the tatau in response to former observe”) and anthropological research of Tahitian customs, all of which wove collectively a fancy historical past of violence and conquest, however nothing about women and girls through the interval I used to be writing about. Nothing about Teha’amana.

After 17 years of unsuitable turns, many hours of analysis within the British Library, and pages and pages of notes that by no means discovered a kind, in the long run I wished to chop by all of the historic information and colonial accounts to inform a easy story. The story of a woman who went with a French man who would someday make her well-known with out her understanding, and the hundreds of thousands her picture would make; what she’d considered it and the way she’d felt.

I needed to think about her world, her expertise, and was drawn to the legends and creation myths of Polynesia, fascinated by how the story of the moon goddess Hina differed throughout the islands. Every story was deeply linked to the land and parts of island life. A grant from Artistic Scotland allowed me to plan a visit to Tahiti, the place I felt positive I’d lastly discover out what had actually occurred to Teha’amana.

Tahiti was as stunning as I’d hoped, a panorama that was without delay gorgeous and ominous, with steep mountains rising up into the clouds on the centre of the island. That mountainous area is the place the rebels camped out throughout colonial rule, combating to maintain their traditions alive. Nowadays it is kind of uninhabited, with most dwellings clustered alongside the shoreline, the place gated expat communities rub up towards Tahitians residing in shacks.

Everybody I met was heat and pleasant, strangers greeting me with the customary Ia ora na (good day/greetings) however nobody appeared to know something concerning the woman within the portray. I had three native guides and met historians, artists, journalists and museum administrators. When it got here to the artist there appeared to be two camps of thought. One revered Gauguin’s artwork and his “symphony of color”. However the different didn’t need to discuss “the coloniser” as a result of he’d had his say; his imaginative and prescient of their world had been delivered to the west and celebrated sufficient.

Right this moment, vacationers come off the large ocean liners (one is named the Paul Gauguin), and keep in shiny inns to be entertained within the evenings by younger Tahitians performing their conventional dances. It was troublesome to seek out any hint of the place that when existed in Teha’amana’s time.

Self-Portrait with Manao Tupapau by Paul Gauguin.
Self-Portrait with Manao Tupapau by Paul Gauguin. {Photograph}: Effective Artwork/Corbis/Getty Pictures

I travelled from the capital Papeete, which was as soon as the principle port city the place Gauguin’s ship would have landed, to the village of Mataiea, the place Gauguin lived with Teha’amana. The hut the place he’d made that portray, and others, has disappeared, although her picture is plastered throughout rum bottles and biscuit tins within the memento retailers.

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The demise certificates that I unearthed from the archives, which Bengt Danielsson, Gauguin’s biographer, claimed was hers, additionally didn’t add up. In line with the dates, she would have been a one-year-old when she met Gauguin, and there was no report of the 2 sons she is reported to have had after Gauguin left. My Tahitian information discovered Teha’amana’s descendants within the village of Faaone however they didn’t need to communicate to me. I used to be an outsider. What gave me the suitable to come back looking for her story?

The scars of Tahiti’s previous stay. The white males had come, starting with the British explorer Captain Wallis in 1767, and in lower than 50 years they’d destroyed an historic lifestyle. The island turned to Christianity in 1812 by the conversion of the Tahitian king Pomare II to Protestantism, and the Pomare Authorized Code, arrange by the London Missionary Society, banned a lot indigenous tradition, from the making of tapa (conventional material) to the talking of the Tahitian language.

However histories, genealogies, myths and legends had been handed down orally, by the male lineage. The traditional Tahitian monks taught their sons to hold what they knew into the longer term. And it was one in all these descendants that I met on my penultimate day in Tahiti, on a marae (temple web site). His great-grandfather had identified the historical past of the households from Teha’amana’s village. He instructed me she had been youthful than 13 when she met Gauguin, and that he had given her syphilis. That after he’d left, her household had taken her dwelling and stored her there till she died, and that she is buried of their village. She by no means had any kids.

In Gauguin’s Tahitian journal, Noa Noa, he tells the reader how he met “Tehura”, whom he describes as smart past her years, and the way she taught him concerning the stars and the myths and legends of her folks. He noticed all of her race mirrored within the depths of her eyes. She was unspoilt by progress and his first excellent muse. The artist’s work are troublesome for folks to simply accept at this time as a result of we recognise the exploitative nature of his gaze: the colonist’s eye. However that portray opened a doorway for me into Teha’amana’s world. With out it, the ability that it exudes, I’d by no means have launched into a journey to find her fact and her voice.

I Am Not Your Eve by Devika Ponnambalam is printed by Bluemoose on Friday. It has been longlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historic fiction. To assist the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Supply costs could apply.