“I assure you from the point of view of painting it’s admirable,” wrote Paul Gauguin in a letter to a friend in 1901. He was describing Hiva Oa, the island in French Polynesia where he had finally settled and would live out his final few years. “Poetry emerges here of its own accord, and it can be evoked simply by allowing oneself to dream while painting. I ask for just two years of good health and not too many money worries, in order to reach a certain maturity in my art.”
Gauguin did live for two more years but they were ravaged by syphilis and alcoholism. It is possible he died from an accidental morphine overdose, which might explain his ability to dream while painting. He certainly died alone and penniless, in self-imposed exile on the remote Marquesas Islands, a scatter of volcanic rocks rising from the swell of the Pacific.
There could scarcely be greater contrast between his isolated death in the tropics, and the razzmatazz surrounding the arrival of his paintings in London later this month. The city’s first big exhibition of his work for 50 years, Gauguin: Maker of Myth, at Tate Modern, has already been called Britain’s art “event of the year”.
More than 100 paintings, ceramics, sketches and illustrated letters will piece together his time in French Polynesia and the influence his work had on other artists.
It is well documented that Gauguin did much of his best and best-known work once he had escaped to Tahiti, leaving behind his life in Europe as a family man and stockbroker. He had long expressed a desire to find an idyll free from “everything that is artificial and conventional” where he could “live on fish and fruit”, and in 1891 he found Tahiti, where he was at liberty to spend his days drinking, womanising, idling and painting. The resulting work, paintings of voluptuous naked Polynesian women reclining, draped in flower garlands and clutching local fruits, charged western perceptions of the area.
Much less is known about his final years on the Marquesas Islands, one of the most inaccessible clutches of habitable land on the planet. The 12 islands (or 15, depending on which scraps of rock you’re generous enough to class as such) squat in the middle of the Pacific. They fall under Tahiti’s dominion but lie a staggering 900 miles from the mother isle.
Despite the intervening century, following Gauguin’s trail to the Marquesas remains a gruelling undertaking. After flying 12 hours to Los Angeles and eight to Tahiti, it is a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Nuku Hiva, the largest island of the Marquesas, with a touchdown en route. I disembark briefly before boarding a flimsy-looking Twin Otter for the 30-minute trip to Hiva Oa, the main island in the southern Marquesas.
Those used to postcard images of Tahiti’s sandy honeymoon retreats – paradise islands such as Bora Bora and Moorea, with white beaches, turquoise lagoons and stilted ocean-front villas – are in for a surprise. The Marquesas are an altogether different, more complex proposition. They act as something of a halfway house between Australia and the Americas and are the first large windbreak for the hearty easterly gusts propelled by the Humboldt Current. This means they are incredibly dry in parts and their steep volcanic slopes formidable. There is no coral reef around the islands to filter the rush of the ocean into gentle, lapping waves. Instead, Hiva Oa’s steep cliffs are whipped by the water day and night.
The island’s shape is predatory, rising out of the sea into a peaked ridge like a diplodocus’s backbone, but inland large stretches of dense jungle and tropical fruit plantations cocoon the 2,300 inhabitants from the elements.
Hiva Oa’s airstrip is a lofty clearing in a plantation of conifers above Atuona, the port and principal town. There are a number of guesthouses but just one hotel, the Hanakee Pearl Lodge, 20 charming wooden bungalows grouped around an infinity pool overlooking Atuona. From the restaurant’s verandah, there are 360-degree views down to Taaoa Bay and beyond up to Mount Temetiu. I arrive to a dinner of tuna and lobster, so fresh they might have been hauled from the sea that morning, but presented with the sort of precise attention to artifice Gauguin sought to escape.
Atuona’s “sights” are few. Alongside a post office, naval base and football field, there’s the graveyard where Gauguin is buried – little to fill up the week ahead then: just what Gauguin prescribed.
First, though, there’s the Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre, a celebration of his life and work on the island opened in 2003 for the 100th anniversary of his death. The paintings are themed around three quotations: “Escaping to reach art”, “The right to dare anything in art” and “Becoming part of a primitive culture”. All are reproductions – it is a shame no one has made a gift of an original Gauguin to the islanders who put up with his libertine antics so many years ago. Apparently he used to pay his escalating grocery tab in paintings. One day the benefactor of these priceless works argued with her family and set fire to the lot.
Alongside the main exhibits is a reconstruction of the two-storey hut Gauguin built for himself. The “Maison de Jouir”, or “House of Pleasure”, stands on its original shorefront spot and, judging by the number of living Hiva Oans who claim the artist as an ancestor, those final days were very pleasurable indeed. On the doorframe the words Gauguin inscribed on his own in 1901 are replicated: “Be mysterious ... Be loving and you will be happy.”
Was Gauguin happy on Hiva Oa? He was so sick by the time he arrived that he never got chance to explore the island. I, however, am to be shown around by Frida Peterano, a taxi driver and tour guide, organised by the hotel. The journey from Atuona to Puamau, the best archaeological site in the Marquesas takes several hours; the road vertiginous and shaped like a coiled rope in parts. The only vehicles here are 4X4s, brought in on the freight ship Aranui. We pass clumps of wild pink orchids on the way but just one other vehicle.
After marvelling at the tikis, the huge carved stone characters which stand on the edge of the jungle, we lunch at Chez Marie-Antoinette’s. Frida points out that everything we eat at the restaurant, from the goat curry to the raw fish salad and sweet coconut cake, is sourced from the island. Her children, she says, have all left to study and work on Tahiti, but there, if you want some fruit or some fish, you have to buy it. Here you just pick what you need, whether it’s a fresh coconut or a noni fruit, so prized as a health product in other parts of the world. Goats and boars are still hunted in the traditional way, chased to the edge of a cliff above the ocean, where, once speared, they tumble to their death and are pulled into a boat waiting below.
Back at the hotel, pahu music creeps through the trees. Pahu are traditional wooden drums, each hewn from a single trunk and carved with symbols. A rainbow stretches over the valley below the hotel. Such a regular occurrence, apparently, that no one apart from me even blinks.
There’s a strong, earthy calm to the Marquesas. The cliffs have survived thousands of years of thrashings from the surrounding ocean and the people have withstood multiple bloody invasions (the population of all the islands is a mere 8,632, compared to over 100,000 before the Europeans arrived with their diseases in the 16th century).
The remoteness of the Marquesas makes it peculiar that the Polynesians named them the Land of Men. They are anything but: truly wild, tough and vulnerable in equal measure. Of course you could flesh out your schedule hiking, diving, fishing, mountain biking and horseriding, but a glimpse of life here feels like that much sought-after experience of peace and solitude – so it’s better to spend it simply gazing out to sea.
The Tate exhibition will show what Gauguin’s radical reappraisal of the limitations of culture achieved for art. But if, like him, you want a taste of the real thing rather than a reproduction, you’ll have to make the long trip yourself.
“Gauguin: Maker of Myth” is at Tate Modern (www.tate.org.uk) in London from September 30 to January 16, then moves to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (www.nga.gov), from February 27 to June 5 2011.
Bungalows for two at the Hanakee Pearl Lodge (www.pearlresorts.com) cost from £300. Turquoise Holidays (www.turquoiseholidays.co.uk) offers a two-week Polynesian Discovery trip, including the Marquesas, Rangiroa, and Moorea from £3,785 per person including domestic flights and transfers. For general information, see www.tahiti-tourisme.co.uk