Paul Gauguin
Faa Iheihe, 1898
Oil on canvas, 54 x 169.5 cm
The National Gallery, London, on loan from the Tate Collection, London

The subject
Paul Gauguin completed Faa iheihe in 1898 during his second Tahitian sojourn, after he had decided to leave his native France permanently. The painting reflects his renewed interest in life on the heels of a failed suicide attempt in 1897. [1]

Gauguin’s representation of six partially nude figures in a lush tropical landscape was decidedly nostalgic, for he depicted a “primitive” Tahiti of the past that had long been supplanted by colonial rule. The horizontal format reflects the influence of Javanese sculptural friezes. [2]

The title
The title is believed to be a misunderstanding of the Tahitian word fa’ai’ei’e which means, “to beautify, adorn, or embellish,” as man or woman might do in preparation for a festive occasion. [3] It has also been proposed that the painting’s inscription is a misspelling of Faa Ineine, which translates to “preparations for a festival.” [4]

To the Armory Show
The Paris-based dealer Ambroise Vollard lent the painting to the 1913 Armory Show, where it hung in Gallery R alongside twelve other works by Gauguin, as well as paintings by Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Augustus John, Puvis de Chavannes, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse.

The response
Critics singled out Faa Iheihe as representative of Gauguin’s ability to capture life in the South Seas. In Forum magazine, W.D. MacColl praised the painting: “The fire, the sombre [sic] beauty, the passion of the Tahitian forest are there…in Faa Iheihe it has become a decorative panel worthy of the doge’s palace.” [5] Gauguin’s decorative abilities were not always praised, however, as conservative Kenyon Cox described him as a “decorator, but a decorator tainted with insanity.” [6]

[1] See Belinda Thomson, Gauguin by Himself (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), 244 (on his suicide attempt); and Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art, Other Than Works by British Artists (London: Tate Gallery in association with Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981), 271.

[2] They reflect specifically the friezes at the Javanese temple of Baraboudour, two photographs of which were found in Gauguin’s studio after his death. See Alley, 271.

[3] Bengt Danielsoon, “Gauguin’s Tahitian Titles,” The Burlington Magazine 109, no. 769 (April 1967): 230.

[4] Georges Wildenstein and Ursula Frances Marks-Vandenbroucke, Gauguin, sa vie, son oeuvre; reunion de textes, d’études, de documents sous la direction et avec la collaboration de Georges Wildenstein (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958), 161.

[5] W.D. MacColl, “The International Exhibition of Modern Art,” Forum 50 (July 1913): 28.

[6] Kenyon Cox, “The ‘Modern’ Spirit in Art,” (reprinted from Harper’s Weekly, March 15, 1913) (New York: American Academy of Arts and letters, 1924), 15.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903):

Born in Paris in 1848, Paul Gauguin worked as a stockbroker before deciding to pursue a full-time art career in 1883. [1] He initially exhibited Impressionist-style pictures, but by 1888 had turned his attention to depicting the exotic and the primitive, first in the French coastal town of Pont-Aven and later in the South Seas. Gauguin made his first trip to Tahiti in 1891, seeking to escape the West. When he retuned to France in 1893 the Paris-based dealer Paul Durand-Ruel organized an exhibition of his recent Tahitian paintings, but the show was a financial failure and further confirmed Gauguin’s disillusionment with western culture. In 1895 he returned to Tahiti, and in 1901 he settled in the Marquesas, where he died in 1903.

Soon after Gauguin’s death a memorial exhibition of his work was mounted in Paris at the Salon d’Autome of 1903, followed by a larger retrospective of his work at the 1906 Salon d’Automne. These exhibitions helped to establish Gauguin’s reputation as a great modernist innovator, and his works were exhibited with increasing frequency in Europe in the years leading up to the Armory Show. The dealers Ambroise Vollard and E. Druet regularly displayed his work in their Paris galleries, and in 1910 Roger Fry included twenty-five of Gauguin’s paintings in his landmark exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists held at the Grafton Galleries in London. This show was widely covered by the New York press and generated interest in Gauguin. Some American collectors had already begun acquiring his works, including Gertrude and Leo Stein as early as 1904 and the Chicago heiress Emily Crane Chadbourne by 1910. [2] But for the most part American audiences would have to wait for the opening of the Armory Show to see Gauguin’s work firsthand.

[1] See Gauguin: Maker of Myth, Belinda Thomson and Tamar Garb, eds., exh. cat. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] Gertrude and Leo Stein purchased two Gauguin paintings in 1904; Emily Crane Chadbourne, a member of the Stein circle, acquired at least seven Gauguin drawings by 1910. See Susan Alyson Stein, “From the Beginning: Collecting and Exhibiting Gauguin in New York,” in Colta Feller Ives and Susan Alyson Stein, The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002), 151-152.

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