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Publication Title | Paul Gauguin and the complexity of the primitivist

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Paul Gauguin and the complexity of the primitivist


Ruud Welten

The Three Tahitians, painted by the French painter Paul Gauguin in 1899, depicts two

young women positioned on either side of a young man whose back is turned. Even

if I did not know the title of the painting, I would have been able to tell that these

half-naked people are natives from a non-Western country, sometime in the past.

The entourage is paradisiac. The young woman on the left is holding a piece of fruit

in her hand. Has the apple of sin been replaced by a mango? The man whose back I

see is looking away from the woman on the right, while she seems to gaze into

nothingness. There is something mysteriously tranquil about the painting. A

promise of a simple, carefree life. The three people are doing nothing in particular

and find themselves in a natural environment of some sort, perhaps the woods or

the beach. The weather appears to be fair. In this painting Gauguin reveals the truth

and beauty of primitive, Polynesian life. At least, this is a common interpretation of

Gauguin’s work, often read or heard. In what follows, however, I will argue that

such an interpretation of Gauguin’s painting is far too simplistic, and, consequently,

false. We might even wonder whether ‘primitivism’ to Gauguin was not so much a

colonialist style of making art, but rather a way of deconstructing it. I will elaborate

on this question by drawing the problem of primitivism on a broader canvas of

colonialist and anti-colonialist mentalities.

Figure 1 Paul Gauguin, Three Tahitians, 1899.

Journal of Art Historiography Number 12 June 2015

Image | Paul Gauguin and the complexity of the primitivist

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