Paul Gauguin, Primitivist Art and the Invention of Polynesian Sexuality

I worked in haste and passionately, for I knew that the consent had not yet been definitely gained. I trembled to read certain things in these large eyes--fear and the desire for the unknown, the melancholy of bitter experience which lies at the root of all pleasure, the involuntary and sovereign feeling of being mistress of herself. Such creatures seem to submit to us when they give themselves to us; yet it is only to themselves that they submit. In them resides a force which has in it something superhuman--or perhaps something divinely animal. Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, 1903

Most have heard the phrase sex sells, and the pithy statement’s direct nature leaves little room for ambiguity as to its meaning. In the modern era of rampant capitalist consumerism, sex sells describes, among other things, the most fundamental of marketing tools. Indeed, the very notion of selling assumes a producer (or else purveyor) and an intended consumer. To look at the story of French colonization and imperialism in the Pacific is to see the development and expression of a cultural-sexual pathology based in the commodification of not just sex, but the specific (and explicit) sex and sexuality of those island peoples the earliest colonial explorers encountered. Beginning with the reports of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1769, a fascination and repulsion for Polynesian sexuality served to establish a colonial dynamic wherein sex became a reciprocally operating vehicle for the consumption and dissemination of goods and ideas on both sides of the ocean. Paul Gauguin, a French painter who lived and worked in Tahiti and the Marquesas for a cumulative eight years in the last decade of the 19th century epitomizes this phenomenon. Gracing galleries around the world, Gauguin’s portrayals of Polynesian peoples are (arguably) the West’s most enduring articulations of Oceanic cultural-sexual subjectivity as well as the basis for the artistic body that constitutes the primitivist modernist movement.

A restless artist desirous to break from the traditionalist moorings of European culture, Paul Gauguin journeyed to Tahiti in 1865 in search of the place described by Bougainville a century earlier; a land where, “Venus [is] the goddess of hospitality, her worship admits no mysteries and every moment of bliss is a festival for the nation.”1  A well-read intellectual, Bougainville’s descriptions of Polynesians are importantly colored by emergent European Enlightenment understandings of human development. As Peter Brooks explains in Gauguin’s Tahitian Body,

Bougainville had discovered not the anarchic ‘state of nature,’ but what Rousseau in his Discours de l’ingélité parmi les hommes of 1754 called ‘la société naissante’: a people emerged from barbarism, and entered into a social compact which has not yet been adulterated…Here as Rousseau puts it, is the ‘true youth of the world.2

1 Brooks, Gauguin’s Tahitian Body, p.332
2 Brooks, p. 332

In determining Tahitians as at the primitive stage on Rousseau’s social development trajectory––with European culture as the assumed apex of civilization––Bougainville simultaneously affirmed the popular social theories of his intellectual milieu and, more consequentially, laid the foundation for the glorious, golden myth of Tahiti in the French imagination. This is not to say that Bougainville’s observations are entirely fabricated or else not historically valuable, but rather to illustrate how the totally foreign social organization of the Tahitians was necessarily reconstructed within pre-existing European social paradigms irreparably imbued with romanticism, ethnocentrism and slated against Judeo-Christian values.

The French conception of the South Pacific as a place populated by primitive, naïve people unencumbered by materialism and socio-sexual constraints,3 was—most charitably—skewed in the eighteenth century and patently false in the nineteenth, as decades of colonial rule and aggressive missionary work on the part of the Catholic, Protestant and Mormon churches radically changed the demographics and geographical landscape of the island. As such, Tahiti had not escaped the technical, intellectual, artistic and social modernization of Europe unscathed and Gauguin struggled to reconcile the reality of Tahiti and the savage, sexually liberal utopia that European art and literature had promised him. Indeed, early in Gauguin’s journal Noa Noa, he concludes that “civilization,” defined by “soldiers, trade, officialdom,”4 had triumphed in Tahiti’s capital of Papeete; in order to find that which he sought he must journey into the least developed parts of the island and, later, the neighboring Marquesas. Therefore it is here, in those spaces Gauguin claims for the past, the bulk of his work is produced.
3 Brooks, p.333
4 Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, p.4

Although by no means one of his most famous or analyzed pieces, Gauguin’s Three Tahitians offers a complex perspective on issues of subjectivity, sexuality and Gauguin’s struggles to convey both. Painted during his second—and final—stay in Tahiti and the Marquesas in 1899,5 Three Tahitians shows three individuals organized in a row. To the far left is a woman clad in a red pareau; her back is to the viewer yet her face is fully visible. Her expression is cryptic, her eyes cast downwards, towards the lower left corner of the image. Clutched in her left hand is either a mango or a breadfruit. In the center is a man—a boy—whose knotted pareau is barely visible over the lower frame of the image; his head is angled towards the left-hand woman. The third subject of the piece to the far right appears to be a woman—her visible chest and long, flower-adorned head seem indicative of a woman and yet her rather harsh features are distinctly masculine, making it highly likely that Gauguin is either directly portraying or else referencing the idea of a mahu.
5 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism, p.315

The role of the mahu in Polynesian society is an ancient one, and in this respect Gauguin’s art may be seen as genuinely reflective of Polynesian culture. Sometimes referred to as the “third sex,” mahus are biological males who tend to present in clothing and appearance as women; they perform work typically associated with women such as weaving, quilting, crafts, housework and gardening. In Sex in Tahiti, ethnographer Stephen F. Heisenman describes the mahu subject as biologically male although feminine (although not entirely female) in psychosocial identity. Their role is fluid inasmuch as they may remain separate from social systems as they relate to marriage and children for their whole lives but could very well become fathers with wives and children.6
6 Stephen S. Eisenman, Gauguin’s Skirt, pg.107

Bearing this description in mind, one might identify the farthest right figure in Three Tahitians as a mahu. If this is so, the body language of the middle male is highly telling, as his head is clearly pointed in the direction of the woman. This figural composition could be interpreted as the boy literally choosing the woman over the mahu, but may also be Gauguin’s depiction of a more ideological inclination: the boy’s “choice” is a validation and assertion of the classic Western gender binary and a dimorphic understanding of sexuality over the foreign Polynesian paradigm.

Another aspect of the piece is its religious symbolism, most apparently the ambiguous fruit held by the leftmost woman in the upper corner. Potentially a breadfruit or else a mango, its inclusion in the piece seems to be a biblical reference to Eve and the apple—a classic motif for temptation, the original sin of womanhood and man(kind)’s descent from godliness. The potency of Gauguin’s application of Judeo-Christian subtext to a portrait of native Tahitians is manifold: It acknowledges the contemporary and pervasive Christian presence and influence on the island—especially as it (forcefully) draws the younger generations of Tahitians away from their own spiritual—and therefore cultural—traditions. For just as Eve’s biting of the apple relieved her and Adam of their innocence, so too does Gauguin visually accuse French colonialism of robbing Tahitians of their precious and admirable naïveté, catapulting them from utopian primitivism to the corrupt prison of civility.7 Finally, the Eve/apple comparison requires viewers to reconcile the traditional Christian constructs of sex and gender with the reality of the Tahitian subjects who alternately mock, submit to, and subvert such values.
7 Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa pg.9

In 1891, art critic Albert Aurier described the symbolist movement as “the painting of ideas.”8 In this way, Gauguin’s Three Tahitians epitomizes the zeitgeist of symbolism; it is not a portrait but rather a depiction of statements, accusations, questions and desires wherein the subjects and the artist, France and Polynesia, North and South are inextricably linked. Yet if symbolism is the painting of ideas, one must then ask, whose ideas? Gauguin’s desire to personally  “[assume] the role of savage,”9 and the volatile marriage between the artist’s preconceived notions about Tahitian identity, sexuality and social structure and the reality he found, resulted in works wherein the real and the constructed are indistinguishable. So while the colonial story may be known as one of “possession and cultural dispossession––real power over real bodies,” Gauguin’s symbolist paintings assumed an “imaginary power over imaginary bodies.10”  In seeking to recreate himself, Gauguin created the Polynesian subjects of his paintings, subjects whose bodies and minds continue to be physically preserved in his art and figuratively preserved in the European psyche.
8 Joanna Miller, Synthesizing Gauguin, p.10

Rachel Levinson, Pitzer College


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  2. Gorin, Danielle. "The Quest for Spiritual Purity and Sexual Freedom: Gauguin's Primitive Eve." Valley Humanities Review (2010): n. pag. Web.
  3. Brooks, Peter. "Gauguin's Tahitian Body." The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. 1st ed. Boulder, CO: WestView, 1992. 329-45. Print.
  4. Maitland, Alexander, Sir. "Paul Gauguin Three Tahitians." National Galleries of Scotland. National Galleries of Scotland, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2013. IMAGE
  5. Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. "Going Native, Paul Gauguin and the Invention of the Primitivist Modernist." The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. 1st ed. Boulder, CO: WestView, 1992. 313-329. Print.
  6. Noa Noa, by Paul Gauguin, O.T. Theis tr. [1919], at
  7. Ferris, Jaime. "Primitive Art and Its Influence on 20th-Century Modernism - Entertainment - Housatonic Times." Pennsylvania Main Line News Covering Local News including Local Sports, Video and Multimedia Coverage, and Classified Advertising. Housatonic Times, 2 Apr. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.
  8. Eisenman, Steven F. Gauguin's Skirt. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Print. Interplay.

How to cite this page:
Rachel Levinson. “Paul Gauguin, Primitivist Art and the Invention of Polynesian Sexuality,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.  2013. Web. [Date accessed]  <html>