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Le paradis autour de Paul Gauguin by Viviane Fayaud (review)

From: The Contemporary Pacific
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 203-205 | 10.1353/cp.2013.0002

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New Cytheria. Point Venus. Swaying palms and languorous vahine on the luxuriant shores of an island paradise. For many, the Western myth of Tahiti is almost inextricable from the life and work of Paul Gauguin. Yet, as art historian Viviane Fayaud argues in this volume, Gauguin did not single-handedly invent what she calls French Oceanic Orientalism. Rather, he inherited an iconographic tradition with fascinating roots and surprisingly overlooked antecedents. Throughout the nineteenth century, voyaging artists—for instance, officers on French naval and scientific expeditions—produced thousands of sketches and drawings of their travels in the Society and nearby islands. Fayaud analyzes this representational corpus and explores how it paved the way for Gauguin's own fin de siècle celebrity and the enduring tropes now synonymous with his oeuvre.

"In searching for Polynesia in this iconographic collection," Fayaud argues, "we find France first" and then "the world of the artists themselves" (212). The actual islands come into view only thereafter. She focuses her analysis on four artists in particular. The first two, Jules Louis Lejeune and Max Radiguet, Fayaud terms "expedition artists." Lejeune served as official artist aboard La Coquille, a ship that circumnavigated the globe between 1822 and 1825. His somewhat technically limited work consists mostly of detailed renderings of Tahitian material culture and picaresque portraits of Tahitian notables. Working twenty years later, from 1842 to 1844, Radiguet voyaged on the Reine Blanche, a ship engaged in gunboat diplomacy in Tahiti and the Marquesas. His drawings predictably reflect the political concerns of the expedition and depict interactions between French marines and the native population. Rather than focusing on the supposedly more exotic elements of life in Tahiti such as tattooing, Radiguet's drawings record the everyday—families going about household activities, women preparing food, men fishing. In representing the "trivial aspects" of Tahitian life, Fayaud argues that Radiguet's work leads to a "demythification of these paradisiacal islands" (98).

The other two artists discussed by Fayaud were less interested in illustrating the quotidian, though they arguably spent more time immersed in Tahitian society than either Lejeune or Radiguet. A career professional artist for the French Navy, Charles Giraud lived in Tahiti from 1843 to 1847. He spoke Reo Maohi, married a local woman, and fought in the Franco-Tahitian War, ultimately earning the Legion d'Honneur for his service. Fayaud describes Giraud as being equally comfortable among native Tahitians as he was with his fellow military officers. She notes, with perhaps undue surprise, that Giraud's art remained firmly anchored in Western aesthetic conventions despite his intimacy with Tahitian ways. Giraud favored majestic landscapes, harrowing military battles, and portraits of (preferably nubile, female) royalty.

Like Giraud, Julien Viaud also preferred the poetic to the commonplace. Viaud—better known by his nom de plume, Pierre Loti—is the least obscure artist tackled by Fayaud. Loti's 1880 novella Le Mariage de Loti helped spark the Tahitimania that ostensibly convinced Gauguin to purchase his ticket for the Pacific. Yet the drawings and paintings Loti produced as a young marine officer have received scant attention from either art historians or literary scholars. According to Fayaud, Loti's drawings bear little trace of the romantic melancholy that famously imbues his literary representation of Tahiti.

Fayaud brings to light an area of study that remains woefully under-researched, and this is one of the most significant merits of this volume. Nearly all nineteenth-century French maritime expeditions employed official artists—indeed they were considered requisite crew members. Artistic ability was in some sense a professional requirement for naval officers. During the Second Empire, candidates for admission to the École navale impériale were required to faithfully reproduce the likeness of a Greek statue as part of their entrance exams (51). Fayaud argues convincingly that more attention should be paid to these official artists, as their lives and work illuminate the many ways that "art opened the way for expansionism and justified colonial conduct" (58). Lejeune, Radiguet, Giraud, and Loti—unlike Gauguin— did not choose to paint or sketch Tahiti because of a preexisting fascination with its people or way of life. They were there as officers on French State expeditions. Their art, according...

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