Savage Tales: Writings by Paul Gauguin

Curated by Dr Linda Goddard

1st November - 20th December 2019

Paul Gauguin, Cahier pour Aline (Notebook for Aline), 1892-3

Original manuscript: Bibliothèque de l’Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Collections Jacques Doucet (NUM MS 227) Facsimile: Paris: Société des amis de la Bibliothèque d’art et d’archéologie / Bordeaux: William Blake, 1989, ed. Victor Merlhès
(University of St Andrews Library, Special Collections, rND553.G2M4)

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) wrote at least thirteen manuscripts (of which seven survive) over the course of his career in France and Polynesia, as well as a substantial correspondence, articles in French and Polynesian newspapers, and his own satirical broadsheet. Although he claimed that he was ‘not a writer’, he carefully reworked, illustrated, and promoted his texts, although most were not published during his lifetime.

A number of his manuscripts are filled with sketches and collaged reproductions, and his words, too, are often borrowed, reiterated, and stitched together in seemingly haphazard fashion. He honed this apparently naïve and unstructured style, like the deliberately crude effects of his visual art, in order to match the identity that he fashioned for himself as a ‘savage’. Gauguin identified writing as an instrument of imperialism, mapping the contrast between ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ onto that between artist and writer. Although he aligned the visual artist with the ‘primitive’ and the writer with the ‘civilised’, in both pairings he was awkwardly placed between the two. Just as he inevitably remained implicated – as a settler in a French colony – in the imperialist culture that he denounced, he could only assert his autonomy as a visual artist by adopting the privileged voice of the writer.

On display here are facsimiles of some of Gauguin’s major manuscripts, including his earliest text, dedicated to his daughter, and the memoir written in the final year of his life.

Avant et après (Before and After), 1903

Original manuscript: private collection Facsimile: Copenhagen: Scripta / Poul Carit Andersen, 1951 (Private Collection)

Gauguin wrote this unconventional autobiography, illustrated with monotypes of Tahitian scenes, at the end of his life, while living on Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas Islands. He sent the manuscript to the French art critic André Fontainas in an unsuccessful bid to get it published in Paris. Avant et après has been published in translation as Gauguin’s Intimate Journals, but this misleading title gives a false impression of spontaneity. In fact, the narrative is self-conscious and experimental. Combining humour and bitterness, Gauguin shifts between reminiscences of his early childhood in Lima, and attacks on the colonial bureaucracy of present-day Tahiti, punctuating the text with the contradictory refrain ‘this is not a book’.

Cahier pour Aline (Notebook for Aline), 1892-3

Original manuscript: Bibliothèque de l’Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Collections Jacques Doucet (NUM MS 227) Facsimile: Paris: Société des amis de la Bibliothèque d’art et d’archéologie / Bordeaux: William Blake, 1989, ed. Victor Merlhès

This untitled notebook is inscribed, on the front cover, with the barely visible phrase ‘Diary of a young girl’, but it is known as the Cahier pour Aline because Gauguin dedicated it to his daughter, writing on the first page “She too is a savage, she will understand me”. The placement on the inside front cover of a reproduction of Camille Corot’s Italian Woman Playing the Mandolin (1865-70), shown here, also suggests Gauguin’s identification with a female alter-ego. In the manner of the albums or keepsake books commonly associated with women and amateur artists in the nineteenth century, he filled the notebook with anecdotes, quotations, brief reminiscences, and pasted in press cuttings from reviews of his first major solo exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, in 1893.

Ancien culte mahorie (Ancient Maori Religion), 1893

Original manuscript: Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques, Paris (RF 10755, 1) Facsimile: Paris: La Palme, 1951; reprint 2001, ed. René Huyghe (Private Collection)

In 1892, Gauguin was lent an oral history of Polynesian culture and mythology called Voyages aux îles du grand océan (Voyages to the Islands of the Pacific Ocean), written by French-Belgian diplomat Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout in 1837. Gauguin was fascinated by this source, declaring to a friend “what a religion the ancient Oceanian religion is. What a marvel! My brain is bursting with it”. He copied origin myths of the Polynesian deities selectively, but verbatim, from Moerenhout into Ancien culte mahorie, and invented visual forms for the gods in striking watercolour illustrations. Many of the legends and vignettes are recycled in his later manuscript Noa Noa, also displayed here.

Noa Noa, 1894-1901

Original manuscript: Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques, Paris (RF 7259, 1) Fascimile: Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2017 (Private Collection)

Noa Noa (meaning ‘fragrant’) is Gauguin’s fictionalised account of his first stay in Tahiti (1891-3). By far the best known of his writings, it is often used as a biographical source, but very few events or characters described in the book are corroborated by external sources, and the story relies on tropes familiar from travel writing and popular fiction about the South Seas. Gauguin produced a first draft in 1893 (the manuscript is in the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles), in which he combines an account of his journey with Polynesian myths copied from Ancien culte mahorie. During 1893-5, he teamed up with the French Symbolist poet Charles Morice, who added poems, edited Gauguin’s text, and, in 1901, published a much-revised version that Gauguin never saw. The edition on display here is a facsimile of Gauguin’s copy of their collaborative text, which is known as the Louvre manuscript. Over the years, the artist made further revisions to this text, added an appendix, and incorporated sequences of collaged images. As on the pages shown here, these often juxtaposed different media, including original watercolours, photographs and pasted-in fragments of his woodcuts.

Dr Linda Goddard