Paul Gauguin’s memoir chronicling his first trip to Tahiti is called Noa Noa, which means “fragrant scent”. It’s a reference not to the sweet smell of flowering tropical flora, but the “mingled perfume, half animal, half vegetable” of the Tahitian women.
Gauguin embarked on his famous voyage in 1891, fleeing from financial ruin and harsh criticism of his art. He put 30 of his works up for sale to pay for the trip and set off in search of an untouched beauty far away from “everything that is artificial and conventional.”
Upon his return to France in 1893 the artist finished writing Noa Noa and illustrated it with ten woodblock prints, including l’Univers est Cree (The Creation of the Universe). The journal tells largely fictional stories of an idyllic island life, but its title hints at the true nature of Gauguin’s odyssey. In Tahiti, the wandering artist found a culture shattered by colonialism, and couldn’t shake an all-consuming sexual desire that would eventually kill him. There’s more than a hint of this darkness in the print that hangs on our wall.
Gauguin and his son produced multiple versions of l’Univers, a primordial beach scene featuring a bizarre cast of creatures: a male torso, a distorted female figure, a fish-man and a levitating cluster of monstrous faces. The Noa Noa series was the artist’s first try at woodblock printmaking, and he was determined to approach the medium in as primitive a manner as possible. He used needles and sandpaper to etch the block and applied it to the paper by hand.
The facture of l’Univers is so rough that authors Alastair Wright and Calvin Brown said that Princeton’s version “hovers at the edge of illegibility”, but the Matthews Gallery’s print was pulled with a more delicate touch. From the tumbling waves to the lines that mark out fierce winds, each feature of the strange landscape stands starkly from the black ink.
Even with Gauguin’s creation story spread so clearly before us, it’s difficult to guess at the meaning behind it. “It’s a surrealist work before surrealism,” Lawrence likes to say. Perhaps this subconscious sandbox, built from dreams and nightmares, sits on the line between the artist’s high hopes for life in Tahiti (rebirth, beaches, beautiful woman) and the reality that he faced when he got there (tumult, deformation, death).
The artist never would have let this tension slip into his fanciful writing or his sunny paintings of Tahiti, but something more ominous emerged when faced with the challenge of hacking his utopian scenes into wood. Gauguin’s paradise was as ephemeral as a fragrant scent.