Te fare hymenee, La maison des chants, from Noa Noa
"My neighbors have become my friends. I dress like them, and partake of the same food as they. When I am not working, I share their life of indolence and joy, across which sometimes pass sudden moments of gravity.
"In the evening they unite in groups at the foot of the tufted bushes which overtop the disheveled heads of the coconut-trees, or men and women, old men and children intermingle. Some are from Tahiti, others from the Tongas, and still others from the Marquesas. The dull tones of their bodies form a lovely harmony with the velvet of the foliage. From their coppery breasts trembling melodies arise, and are faintly thrown back from the wrinkled trunks of the cocoanut-trees. They are the Tahitian songs, the himenes.
"A woman begins. Her voice rises like the flight of a bird, and from the first note reaches even to the highest of the scale; then by strong modulations it lowers again and remounts and finally soars, the while the voices of the other women about her, so to speak, take flight in their turn, and faithfully follow and accompany her. Finally all the men in a single guttural and barbarous cry close the song in a tonic chord.
"Sometimes in order to sing or converse they assemble in a sort of communal hut. They always begin with a prayer. An old man first recites it conscientiously, and then all those present take it up like a refrain. Then they sing, or tell humorous stories. The theme of these recitals is very tenuous, almost unseizable. It is the details, broidered into the woof and made subtle by their naivete, which amuse them.
"More rarely, they discourse on serious questions or put forth wise proposals."
(O. F. Theis, trans., Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, the Tahitian Journal, based on the 1919 London edition, New York, 1985, pp. 15-16)
Gauguin painted Te fare hymenee, La maison des chants in 1892, probably in the fall of that year, during his first stay in Tahiti, which lasted almost exactly two years, from 9 June 1891 to 4 June 1893. In a letter dated 11 March he announced to his friend Daniel de Monfreid that he had recently finished Ia orana Maria, Te vous salue Marie (Wildenstein, no. 428; fig. 1), which he had begun the previous year and was the most ambitious work that he done since his arrival. He then entered an especially productive period. In June he declared to Monfreid, "I have been working hard all this time and up till now have covered forty metres of good canvas with Lefranc & Co.'s colors" (quoted in F. O'Brien, ed., Gauguin's letters from the South Seas, New York, 1992, p. 19). During that spring, summer and early fall, at roughly the midpoint of his sojourn on the island, he painted a string of important works, including Nafea faa ipoipo,Quand te maries-tu? (Wildenstein, no. 454; fig. 2), Manao tupapau, L'esprit des morts veille (W., 457; fig. 3), Parau api, Quelles nouvelles? (W., no. 466; fig. 4), and E haere oe i hia, Ou vas-tu? (W., no. 478, fig. 5).
The compositions of the latter four paintings share key figures with Te fare hymenee; some of these are among Gauguin's best-known and most instantly recognizable images of Tahitian women. Their presence in Te fare hymenee makes this painting, on one level, a sort of group portrait that celebrates the exhilarating achievement of this halcyon period in his work. Gauguin would again incorporate some of these figures elsewhere. A diagram with thumbnail images of the related paintings has been provided to illustrate this far-reaching pictorial network (fig. 6).
The inspiration for this remarkable sequence of works appears to have come from the fact that Gauguin had settled into the local life of the island, as best a European outsider might expect to do, and he had taken as his vahine, his native wife, a young girl named Teha'amana. David Sweetman was written: "As far as his work was concerned, 1892 proved to be Gauguin's best year out of the two he spent on the island. Some would argue that it was the best of his entire artistic career, that the blending of myth and realism which he achieved was superior to anything else in his oeuvre, including the religious paintings he had done in Brittany By the end of 1892, the rapid succession of major works was already drying up and it was the mid-year period, around July/August, which saw the peak of his ecstatic feelings for the island and for Teha'amana, feelings easily discernible in his art" (in Paul Gauguin: A Life, New York, 1995, pp. 336-337).
After spending the first few months of his stay in the colonial capital of Papeete, Gauguin rented a house in the much smaller town of Mataiea on the southern coast of the island, where he hoped to finally experience the genuine character of native life. The year 1892, however, did not begin auspiciously for Gauguin. For the second time since his arrival in Tahiti he hemorrhaged and spit up large quantities of blood. This time it was worse. A doctor in the hospital at Papeete diagnosed heart trouble and successfully treated him with digitalis. It is more likely that this condition was a symptom of advancing syphilis, the tragic disease of the artist's generation, which Gauguin had probably contracted many years earlier and would eventually cause complications leading to his death. He had recovered from the bleeding by March, but he continued to face a discouraging financial situation; little if any income was arriving by mail boat from sales in Europe, and local opportunities to make money from his work were few and far between. Gauguin was eating poorly and losing weight; out of pride he refused gifts of local produce from neighbors, and subsisted mainly on expensive tinned foods he could hardly afford from the store of the local Chinese merchant. He considered that it might become necessary to cut his stay short and return to France, and he began to petition government authorities to subsidize his repatriation. The artist found himself in a persistent dilemma: he had hardly enough money to stay and nowhere enough to leave. He lived on borrowed hope from one mail boat to the next, and whenever some small amount of money arrived he quickly put off the idea of returning to France. He wrote Monfreid, "I think I shall be able to pull through, and really it would have been a shame to leave" (quoted in F. O'Brien, op. cit., p. 19).
It was probably around this time that Gauguin acquired his young native wife, a girl he may have first met in late 1891, when a local family, following Tahitian customs of hospitality, offered their teenaged daughter Teha'amana to the European guest in their village. This arrangement would last as long as he stayed. Native families considered it a great privilege to have a daughter live with a white man; the visitor's acceptance of the girl brought prestige and usually some form of financial reward to her family. Gauguin previously had a liaison in Papeete with a half-caste prostitute named Titi, but he broke off their relationship when her expectations of the wealth and luxury he could provide became too extravagant. To have finally entered into a local marriage agreement solved many problems for the artist. It was informal bond by any European standard, and was especially attractive to Gauguin for this very reason. Any child born of this union would be adopted into the extended family and be assured of being cared for, and, as it turned out, Teha'amana was pregnant when Gauguin left her to finally return to France.
On a practical level, Gauguin now had someone who could attend to daily chores of housekeeping, provide food and could be counted on to look after him if his hemorrhaging recurred. In terms of his work, Gauguin had found it difficult to engage models among the local girls; painters had observed that it was virtually impossible to get Tahitian girls to disrobe unless this activity was preliminary to love-making. And of course this relationship brought with it the promise of one of the things that had most tempted him to come to the South Seas, and fulfilled a fantasy that he had long harbored and only occasionally had been able to act upon--he was now free to make love to an adolescent girl in an undisguised relationship that was neither restrained nor stigmatized by European sexual mores. Sweetman has written:
"And so found his child-bride, and a model, though his aversion to strict portraiture makes it difficult to state with any certainly exactly which of the vahines in his subsequent paintings is really she. She may well have posed for most of them, but he may also have varied the faces as it suited him... That August he wrote to Monfreid to tell him he had just painted 'two women at the water's edge--which is the best of what I've done so far [fig. 4]...' Teha'amana may have modeled for both of them. More to the point is the obvious happiness which she brought him and which shines out of the picture. Her name in Tahitian means 'Giver of Strength' and she undoubtedly gave him the force to paint with renewed vigour" (op. cit., p. 334).
The painting Te fare hymnenée illustrates the episode quoted at the beginning of this essay, which Gauguin included in Noa Noa, the collection of memories, stories and observations of his first Tahitian trip that he wrote down to explain his paintings when he returned to France in 1893. Within the shelter of a large communal hut, a crowd of villagers has gathered in some sort of prayer service. There was one such building run by Protestant missionaries in Mataiea. The participants here are mostly women; or perhaps we are simply looking at the area in the hut where the women sit together, apart from the men. Gauguin has clearly rendered only a single male figure, the young man in a white smock standing on the left side; his appearance is a variant view of the Jeune homme à la fleur (W., no. 422; see diagram, fig. 6). There is another vaguely painted male face to his left, and above that visage one can barely make out a man in white robes, who is probably the officiating cleric.
Most of the women are clad in a "Mother Hubbard" or "grandmother" dress, the loose, all-covering and unbelted Victorian garment named after the nursery rhyme character that missionaries encouraged Tahitian girls to wear instead of their more revealing native attire. One of these girls, the one seen at far right, is set in a pose derived from two earlier paintings, the two versions that Gauguin made of girls seated by the seashore (W., nos. 434 and 436; see diagram, fig. 6). In the front row of women, however, twin glimpses of more alluring Tahitian garb catch the eye; two girls sitting apart from each other can be seen wearing the customary native costume of a low cut, sleeveless white blouse and the sarong-like, floral-patterned pareu, which causes them to stand out incongruously among the crowd. Gauguin has cast both of these girls in poses he derived from two figures that appear in some of his best-known Tahitian paintings (see diagram, fig. 6). Gauguin has in effect spotlighted them, although at first glance his purpose is unclear. Even more mysterious are the two sleeping women in the foreground; the source painting for this image is offered in this catalogue as lot 44.
The nature and significance of this gathering may come in better focus while considering the title Gauguin inscribed on his painting, Te fare hymenee. This has been translated, in the way the painting is commonly known, as La maison des chants, "the house of songs," or sometimes "house of hymns," which may infer songs of either a sacred nature that may be appropriate in a Christian prayer meeting, or of a secular kind for a non-religious get-together. Gauguin's title is part-Tahitian (te fare--"the house") and part transliterated French-Tahitian (hymenee--himene or "hymn" in Tahitian). It is likely that Gauguin intended hymenee to also suggest the French word hyménée, connoting a wedding, nuptial. There is a similar relationship in English between the words "hymn" and "hymeneal," that is, "a prayer to God" in a sacred sense, and "wedding song" or "nuptial rite" in a more worldly context. These words share a common root in Greek, and imply a solemn covenant between two entities, the worshipper and God, or man and wife.
With a cleric present, the celebration in Te fare hymenee is surely religious in its purpose, but it may also be related to a wedding ceremony. Elsewhere in Noa Noa Gauguin recounted his attendance at a Protestant wedding service for two young Tahitians. He was probably counting the blessings of his own native marriage arrangement as he observed the villagers participate in the Christianized proceedings:
"A great wedding took place at Mataiea--a real wedding, religious and legal, of the kind which the missionaries imposed on the converted Tahitians. I had been invited to it, and Tehura [Gauguin's name for Teha'amana in Noa Noa] accompanied me...
"For a full hour they eat, and drink much. After this the speeches began. There are many of these. They are delivered according to a regular order and method, and there is a curious competition in eloquence... Everything passed happily and peacefully. To tell the truth, all the table was pretty well intoxicated. Even my poor vahine (I could not keep my eye on her all the time), carried away by example, herself, alas, had become dead drunk" (O. F. Theis, trans., op. cit., pp. 38-39).
Gauguin ended this account with the story of a "hundred-year old woman, ghastly in her decrepitude... She sat immobile and rigid, almost like a mummy" (ibid.). Gauguin may have represented her in Te fare hymenee as the old woman seen in profile and veiled in a black robe at far right. She makes her most frightening appearance as an evil spirit in Manao tupapau (fig. 3), painted in late 1892. Gauguin saw that she had a tattoo on her cheek, which as he found out, had been forced on her by missionaries to mark her as a fallen woman. Gauguin railed against their cruelty and self-righteous zeal:
"I understood on that day, better than I had ever done, the distrust of the Maori toward Europeans. This distrust persists even today, no matter how much tempered it may be by the generous and hospitable instincts of the Oceanian soul. What a reach of years there was between this ancient woman marked by a priest, and this young woman married today by a priest. The mark remained indelible, a testimony to the defeat of the race which had submitted and to the cowardliness of the race that had inflicted it" (ibid., pp. 39-40).
On close examination, Te fare hymenee is more than an illustration of either or both events that Gauguin has recorded in Noa Noa--it is a complex and multi-layered visual program, a narrative of contrasting and contending cultural ideas, symbolist in its conception, in which the artist aimed to reveal and critique the impact of European influence on traditional Tahiti life. The old ways and the ancient myths still persist, Gauguin had found, but they slumber beneath the surface of the daily life and events on the island, just as the two shrouded women lie asleep, lost in dreams but watched over by their dogs, in the lower stratum of the picture. The European presence is no doubt a powerful and domineering presence, but in one sense it is only a veneer, a covering that like the Mother Hubbard dress may conceal but cannot do away with the innate beauty of the native body and soul. Here and there one may catch a fleeting glimpse of this exciting but serene loveliness--the Teha'amana-like figures seen in the crowd here. As the bearer of such enthralling visions, which emanate from the artist's love of a woman and her people, Gauguin beckons to the viewer to enter--as he had done--into this strange and compelling world. Gauguin wrote in Noa Noa:
"Tahitian paradise, navé navé fénua,--land of delights! And the Eve of this paradise became more and more docile, more loving. I was permeated with her fragrance--noa noa. She came into my life at the perfect hour... Today I understand how much I love her, and through her enter into mysteries which hitherto remained inaccessible to me. But, for the moment, my intelligence does not yet reason out my discoveries; I do not classify them in my memory. It is to my emotions that Tehura confides all this that she tells me. It is in my emotions and impressions that I shall later find her words inscribed. By the daily telling of her life she leads me, more surely than it could have been done by any other way, to a full understanding of her race. I am no longer conscious of days and hours, of good and evil. This happiness is so strange at times that it suppresses the very conception of it. I only know that all is good, because all is beautiful" (ibid., pp. 32-33).
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Ia orana Maria, Je vous salue Marie, 1891-1892. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. BARCODE 25011012
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Nafea faa ipoipo, Quand te maries-tu?, 1892. Rudolf Staechlin'sche Familienstiftung, Basel. BARCODE 26015866
(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Manao tupapau, L'esprit des morts veille, 1892. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. BARCODE 26015903
(fig. 4) Paul Gauguin, Parau api, Quelles nouvelles?, 1892. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden. BARCODE 26015934
(fig. 5) Paul Gauguin, E haere oe i hia, Ou vas-tu?, 1892. Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. BARCODE 26015880
(fig. 6) Diagram of Gauguin's paintings which contain figures related to those in Te fare hymenee. NO BARCODE