When Nature Is Mother and Partner, Not Indigenous Slave and/or Harlot

The Eve of your civilized conception makes you, makes almost all of us misogynists; [but] that ancient Eve, who frightens you in my studio, may one day smile at you less bitterly… She can logically remain nude before my eyes.
From Gauguin’s reply to August Strindberg, who wrote to him that he cannot understand his exotic world.
Robert Goldwater, “Paul Gauguin”, Harry Abrams, Inc., 2004, p. 120

Paul Gauguin, “Two Tahitian Women”, 1899
Paul Gauguin, “Two Tahitian Women”, 1899

What images can adequately grasp the historical contours of Western culture – after we spend some time contemplating over “Two Tahitian Women” (one of the paintings usually perceived as Gauguin’s “betrayal” of Western narcissism)? – Conquerors, generals, Napoleons, Caesars, Kings, Bishops – with glaring weapons, shining robes and with erected head-gears, alert, proud, “in glory”. On the women’s side, we immediately see Saint Virgin demonstrating infant Jesus – He is God’s and human son (every man can be his father). And it’s going on for centuries until we meet the autocratic dukes and marquises with their wives in blown skirts, and their exotic dogs, and finally, prostitutes and naturalistic scenes of peasant life.

Western intelligence is formed by confrontation with nature, not by nature’s motherhood. It is the intelligence of intellectual muscles and cognitive exuberance, a technically elaborative one, controlling its objects, imposing itself on the world. But Gauguin is attracted to depict a human intelligence formed by a relaxed collaboration with nature, a unity with it, belonging to it with all humility of nature’s fruits. He registers intelligence in its contemplative relaxation of femininity, incarnated into bodies without feverish self-consciousness, bodies-flowers (virginal, in blue color – the woman on the right), and deflowered without pomp (the woman on the left), bodies-berries (in dense violet on pink-orange or in laky blue).

The both women are looking at something nearby them, may be, at a child, an animal, at a still life with no table, at something that gently echoes inside them. The sunlight behind the trees with their crowns, and its orange reflection on earth is rather the women’s background than the origin of life. They are part of the sun, not its beneficiaries, as they are part of the shadows all around. They have a share in their world – they share it with world as world – with them. Like the trees are as tall as the sunlight, the women are as tall as the trees. The woman on the left has a touch of sorrow in her gaze, as if moving her lips toward kissing what she is looking at. Gauguin wants this kiss to happen as we, the viewers. But woman on the right is more emotionally neutral – she is a flower not picked yet or doesn’t yet feel picked.

The breasts of the woman on the left are right over the berries on the tray (in reality they are mango blossoms). This immediate proximity is, it seems, not only the center of the painting’s composition, but the focal point of its meaning. Nature doesn’t transcend the women – there is no larger and wider perspective than them (which characterized Gauguin’s European landscapes) anywhere around. This matter-of-factly intimacy between the woman on the left and the mango blossoms is the semantic key to the painting. Does nature (mango blossoms) feeds the person or the person feeds/nurtures nature? This nurturing mutuality of nature and the human being makes life amidst an alive environment so self-supporting, in tune with the world. The breasts of the woman which are interacting with berries-mango blossoms where both are a continuation of one another, are the center of this world where light is balanced not by the clouds but by the dark-green of the tree-crowns and where human gaze attends/cares for what it perceives without calculating how to use it for our advantage.