Spirit of the Dead Watching

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Paul Gauguin. Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892. Oil on canvas. Albright Knox Art Gallery.

Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau) is an 1892 oil on burlap canvas painting by Paul Gauguin, depicting a nude Tahitian girl lying on her stomach. An old woman is seated behind her. In Tahitian mythology the title may refer to either the girl imagining the ghost, or the ghost imagining her.[1]

The subject of the painting was Gauguin's Tahitian wife Tehura, then 14 years old, who one night, according to Gauguin, was lying in fear when he arrived late home: "immobile, naked, lying face downward on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear . . . Might she not with her frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?"[1] The spirit she fears is personified by the old woman seated at left. The strong colors are symbolic of the native Polynesian belief that phosphorescent lights were manifestations of the spirits of the dead.[1]

The painting appears to be related to a series of "frightened Eves" that Gauguin painted in 1889.[2] For art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews, Gauguin's interest in depicting formal qualities of line and movement, mild eroticism and fright preceded the narrative aspect, a "pretext for the girl's emotions."[2] Mathews doubts Gauguin's explanation that Tehura confused him with her irrational fears of spirits and darkness; rather, she suggests that the girl's fear would have been in response to Gauguin's aggressive behavior, and consistent with his physical abuse of women.[3]

Other scholars have viewed the narrative as a pretext to make the sexuality of the subject more acceptable to a European audience.[4] In a letter Gauguin explained the color and symbolism of the painting:

Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait, 1893. Gauguin's self-portrait of 1893, with Spirit of the Dead Watching in the background.

General harmony, somber, sad, frightening, telling in the eye like a funeral knell. Violet, somber blue, and orange-yellow. I make the linen greenish-yellow: 1 because the linen of this savage is a different linen than ours (beaten tree bark); 2 because it creates, suggests artificial light (the Kanaka woman never sleeps in darkness) and yet I don't want the effect of a lamp (it is common); 3 this yellow linking the orange-yellow and the blue completes the musical harmony. There are several flowers in the background, but they should not be real, being imaginative, I make them resemble sparks. For the Kanaka, the phosphorescences of the night are from the spirit of the dead, they believe them there and fear them. Finally, to end, I make the ghost quite simply, a little old woman; because the young girl not being acquainted with scenes of French spirits can not do other than see linked to the spirit of the dead, death itself, that is to say, a person like herself.[4]

According to Gauguin, the phosphorescences that could be seen in Tahiti at night, and which natives believed to be the exhalations of the spirits of the dead, were emitted by mushrooms that grew on trees.[4] The description of the spirit of the dead that the artist would have been familiar with came from the work of Pierre Loti, who described the spirit as a "blue-faced monster with sharp fangs"; the decision to paint an old woman instead of a bizarre demon may have been prompted by the desire to use a symbol that would be more familiar to a European audience.[5]

This painting appears in the background of another Gauguin painting, his Self-portrait with Hat, possibly indicating its importance to him.[1]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d NYU School of Medicine, 1997
  2. ^ a b Mathews, 181
  3. ^ Mathews, 182
  4. ^ a b c Maurer, 150
  5. ^ Maurer, 150-151

References[edit]

  • Gasque, Laurel. "Gauguin: Sight and Sound". ThirdWay, Volume 12, No 4, April 1989.
  • "Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau)". NYU School of Medicine. 1997. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  • Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Paul Gauguin: an erotic life, 2001. Yale University Press.
  • Maurer, Naomi E. The pursuit of spiritual wisdom: the thought and art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, 1998. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.