Commentary on Woman of the sea (Femme a la mer)
The MNBA is fortunate enough to possess two paintings from Gauguin’s series of bathers, set in the South Seas rather than in France. This work is mentioned in a list of paintings made during his first stay in Tahiti, referred to as Study of Nude Back, which Gauguin made note of around April of 1892 in his Carnet de Tahiti (1). It was painted in Mataiea, based on a color drawing in the same sketchbook, probably made with the model present and a barely visible grid, useful when the time came to repeat the composition on a larger scale. When it was shown in Paris in 1893, Thadée Natanson gave a concise description of its theme: “sitting on the sand, only her tanned back can be seen, amidst the almost symmetrical flowers that the sea foam embroiders on the waves” (2). The metaphor that ties the crest of the waves, the flowers and embroidery accurately highlights Gauguin’s use of polysemic forms and the oriental quality of this motif. In terms of their form and color, the “flowers” of sea foam are also related to the seashell on the beach and the flowers that are in the print of the sarong draped over the woman’s right knee. In contrast to other paintings by Gauguin showing partially clothed Tahitian women, this sarong has no thickness or folds of its own; it is painted over the woman’s knee much like the cloth in a mannerist painting or a tattoo—a true “embroidery” on the skin and the original form of dressing used by many inhabitants of the South Seas. Assimilating the crests of the waves with flowers is something Gauguin had already done in Brittany (see, for example, Plage du Pouldu (Beach at Le Pouldu), 1889, private collection, Buenos Aires), derived from Japanese art by way of Hiroshige’s prints.Gauguin’s description of the painting as a Study of Nude Back confirms that the essential element is the figure’s back. Various authors have pointed out the challenge issued to artists by Edmond Duranty in his 1876 book La nouvelle peinture, to present figures seen from the back in such a way that their age, social condition and psychological state would be characterized (3). Degas met this challenge quite notably, above all in his pastels of women grooming themselves, some of which are copied in a page of Gauguin’s Album Briant, 1888-1889 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Gauguin was clearly attracted to views from behind with an emphasis on the buttocks, also found in the painting Otahi, 1893 (private collection). In Vahine no te miti, the uncomfortable position of the arms and legs bestow a fragmentary character to the back in a way reminiscent of antique sculpture, transferring an expressivity that is usually attributed to the human face to it instead. In 1948, Raquel Edelman found a monumental aspect to the painting, achieved at the expense of individuality and sensuality; she considered this to be a demonstration of Gauguin’s intention to “dominate and sublimate his eroticism” (4). Nevertheless, the work refers to a very specific woman, whose anatomy expresses a particular character, or what could also be called physiognomy. Gauguin’s eroticism is typically suggestive or indirect. Ronald Pickvance pointed out that the crests of the waves and the floral motif of the sarong are “amoeba-like and animated by organic vitality” (5). If we add the seashell in the corner, partly hidden by red flowers’ capricious forms, it is clear that this bather’s self-contained body, like a form of fruit, is surrounded by a ballet of animated creatures. Both the red flowers and yellow background reappear in Parahi te marae, 1892 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), in which plants imitate human sexuality (6). In the Buenos Aires painting, the big leaf that gives the work its title is divided into similar extremities much like the fingers of a hand, and they are directed toward the woman’s behind (7). Gauguin loved the anatomical suggestiveness of the fruit and flowers he found in Tahiti, which had often passed into local language and myths, and here it is likely that he also alluded to the resemblance between feminine buttocks and the coco de mer or “sea coconut” whose scientific name began as Lodoicea callipyge precisely on account of this analogy (8). The title he gave to the painting can be translated as “woman of the sea” and it is based on the same formula he employed for Vahine no te tiare, “woman of the flower”, 1891 (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhague) and Vahine no te vi, “woman of the mango”, 1892 (Baltimore Museum of Art). Regarding the latter, Hiriata Millaud has observed that vahine—as opposed to hine—signifies a woman who already has a social life, and that the attribute introduced by no (“for” or “of”) is a way of defining the woman’s character, not simply fulfilling a descriptive and mnemonic function (9). The woman in Vahine no te miti directs her gaze and attentive ear to the ocean, more specifically toward the open sea that appears between two large rocks or islands. Just as David Friedrich’s figures are seen with their backs to the viewer, she accordingly acts as a mediator between nature and the spectator, and truly seems to be “of the sea”, thoroughly identified with it, like a Tahitian Venus who is both Anadyomene and Calipigia.
by Dario Gamboni
1— See: Bernard Dorival, Carnet de Tahiti. Paris, Quatre Chemins-Editart, 1954; Carnet de Tahiti. Taravao, Avant et Après, 2001.
2— Thadée Natanson, “Oeuvres récentes de Paul Gauguin”, La revue blanche, December, 1893, cited in: Marla Prather and Charles F. Stuckey (ed.), 1987, p. 225.
3— See Charles F. Stuckey’s entry in: Richard Brettell et al., The Art of Paul Gauguin, exhib. cat. Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1988. French version Gauguin, exhib. cat. Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989, nº 144.
4— Raquel Edelman, 1948, p. 73-79.
5— Ronald Pickvance, Gauguin, exhib. cat. Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, 1998, nº 32.
6— Dario Gamboni, “Parahi te marae: où est le temple?”, 48/14: La revue du Musée d’Orsay, Paris, nº 20, 2005, p. 6-17.
7— See the more explicitly anthropomorphic plant that sustains a copulating couple in the manuscript Album ancien culte mahorie (1892, Musée d’Orsay, París, RF 10755, folio 46).
8— Gauguin later engraved the entire surface of one of these coconuts (Coco de mer, ca. 1901-1903, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo).
9— Hiriata Millaud, “Les titres tahitiens de Gauguin” in: Ia Orana Gauguin, exhib. cat. Paris, Somogy, 2003, p. 81-90.
1893. NATANSON, Thadée, “Oeuvres récentes de Paul Gauguin”, La revue blanche, Paris, diciembre.
1936. Plástica, Buenos Aires, a. 2, nº 5, abril, reprod. byn p. 10.
1948. EDELMAN, Raquel, “Gauguin en Buenos Aires”, Ver y Estimar, Buenos Aires, vol. 2, nº 7-8, octubre-noviembre, p. 73-79, reprod. p. 75.
1964. WILDENSTEIN, Georges, Gauguin. Paris, Fondation Wildenstein, vol. 1, nº 465.
1977. FIELD, Richard S., Paul Gauguin: The Paintings of the First Trip to Tahiti. Tesis de doctorado, Harvard University . New York/London, Garland, nº 21.
1987. PRATHER, Marla y Charles F. Stuckey, Gauguin: A retrospective. New York, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, p. 224-226, reprod. nº 64.
1990. HADDAD, Michèle, La divine et l’impure: le nu au XIXe. Paris, Les Éditions du Jaguar, p. 49-50, reprod. color p. 51.
1993. 1893: L’Europe des peintres, cat. exp. Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, p. 20.