“May the day come soon when I’ll be myself in the woods of an ocean island! To live there in ecstasy, calmness and art […] far from the European struggle for money”.
In 1891, the founding father of Primitivism, Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin travelled to Tahiti in search of “an edenic paradise where he could create pure, “primitive” art.”* By escaping from the European society, technology and cultural traditions, Gauguin hoped to capture spiritual primitive societies he thought were unspoiled by the modern world.
But the Polynesian reality did not meet Gauguin’s expectations of rural and primitive life. Tahiti was colonized as early as in the 18th century, so by the time the artist arrived there he failed to find the culture he was looking for. Two thirds of the native population was killed by European diseases, and the indigenous religion was destroyed by Catholic and Mormon missionaries.
Gauguin painted When Will You Marry during his first stay in Tahiti in 1892. He successfully settled into the local life and had taken a young girl named Teha’amana as his native wife. Their marriage was arranged by the girl’s family, who considered it a great privilege to have their daughter marry a white man, while to Gauguin it was an informal union by any European standard. And though his Tahitian life was not as primitive as Gauguin anticipated, he stayed. During that period he produced a number of his best-known “Gauguin paintings” of Tahitian women, and it is most likely that Teha’amana was the model for many of these pictures.
All the features identifying primitivism – flattering of forms, intense colors and distorted perspective are present in this painting. Gauguin depicted two women, who also appear in his other works – one wearing a traditional Tahitian costume (foreground) and the other is dressed in a missionary dress (background). This contradiction in dress speaks to the changes evident in Tahiti at the time when Gauguin was staying there.
Paul Gauguin’s innovations in color treatment would ultimately set the stage for Fauvism and Expressionism.
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