The Analysis of the Peculiarities of Paul Gauguin’s Mahana No Atua (The Day of the God)

Post-Impressionism. Paul Gauguin

The European art of the nineteenth century developed under the influence of the opposition of Realism and Romanticism’s principles and the new vision of art provided by the followers of Impressionism. Nevertheless, the new reality required new approaches to its understanding and creative realization in the art pieces. The progress of Post-Impressionism which involved the interpretation of such historical issues as the development of imperialism and colonialism became the characteristic feature of European art. Paul Gauguin as one of the most influential figures of the French Post-Impressionism rejected the main concepts supported by impressionists and presented his vision of the problem of the contrast of civilization and the natural world in the series of works including Mahana No Atua (The Day of the God) of 1894. Depicting the peculiarities of the Polynesian religious ritual in the painting, Paul Gauguin emphasizes the importance of the humans’ spiritual contact with nature and accentuates the idea of the natural ‘primitive’ freedom with basing on the traditional European vision of the Polynesian culture and his memories.

Mahana No Atua. Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin’s Mahana No Atua as his other works which belong to the ‘Tahiti period’ is the representation of the specific painter’s imaginative vision of the contrast of civilization and nature and his searches of the natural balance and spiritual harmony. Mahana No Atua was painted by Gauguin in 1894, after his return from Tahiti, and can be discussed as the retrospective or summary of his thoughts about the Polynesian culture and religious aspects in the context of the world religion (Stokstad). The painting is worked out according to the principles of Post-Impressionism and Gauguin’s unique style which combines these principles with the ideas of Primitivism in art. According to Stokstad, “Gauguin called his anti-impressionist style synthesism, because it synthesized observations of the subject in nature with the artist’s feelings about that subject, expressed through the abstracted line, shape, space, and color” (Stokstad 1046).

Paul Gauguin makes accents on the creative interpretation of the objects of the physical world and nature and presents them in paintings according to the peculiarities of the artist’s vision of them without reference to their realism or naturalism. Thus, it is important to concentrate on the emotions aroused when examining Paul Gauguin’s Mahana No Atua with its symbolic shapes and vivid colors emphasized by bold and heavy outlines rather than on the artistic value of the work. In his paintings, Gauguin emphasizes the natural beauty and significance of the simple or ‘primitive’ lifestyle by focusing on the spiritual aspects and using the elements of the ‘decorative’ art. Gauguin’s synthesism is illustrated by the usage of bright pure colors with concentrating on the shapes of the objects which do not reflect the real forms but represent the character of the painter’s perception of the objects, their mysticism, or symbolism. From this point of view, Mahana No Atua (The Day of the God) is the most vivid example of Gauguin’s vision of the world’s natural principles with references to the archaic ‘primitive’ art (Walther).

In Mahana, No Atua Gauguin demonstrates the peculiarities of the Polynesian religious ritual. The complex composition of the painting can be divided into several parts. It is important that the critics discuss the peculiarities of the painting from the perspective of the difference of its right and left parts or with focusing on the balance between the top, middle part, and the bottom of the work. The variety of the approaches to the discussion of the painting accentuates its composition’s asymmetry (Stokstad). There are many opinions on the possible center of the composition in the painting because the definite parts are emphasized on the rest background of the work. According to one of the visions of Mahana No Atua, the center of the composition is the religious idol staying on the beach which is portrayed in dark intensive colors in contrast to the depiction of the sky with light clouds (Goldwater). The illustration of idols is characteristic of Gauguin’s works of the ‘Tahiti period’ which helps to depict the archaic vision of the human’s spiritual unity with nature and its powers (Stokstad).

Thus, Goldwater states that “the various figures which are meant to portray Polynesian gods represent not only the gods themselves, but Gauguin’s idea of how the natives wished to render them” (Goldwater 72). That is why it is impossible to speak about the reflection of the real idols viewed by the painter, but only about the illustration of his specific vision of the Polynesian cultural peculiarities. The researcher also accentuates the fact that “the deity in The Day of the God (1894), for example, has that mixture of Polynesian and Indian traits which we have already noted in the cylinder with Hina” (Goldwater 72). This vision is also supported by Klein and Takahata. According to the researchers, the idol “represents Hina, the Tahitian goddess of the moon, a deity responsible for regeneration and rebirth (an allusion to the constant renewal of the moon)” (Klein and Takahata 8). Thus, the effect of representing the principles of the religious symbolism is achieved with the help of illustrating the idol which has the features of Gods typical for several non-Christian cultures and religions.

The idol is surrounded by the elements of Tahitian nature such as the mountains and trees and by the figures of the native women as the symbols of the traditional European vision of the ‘primitive’ lifestyle and freedom of the non-civilized people. On the left, two women in white are carrying the food to the idol, and on the right, two women in red are dancing the ritual dance. That is why it is possible to speak about the depiction of the religious ritual in the painting. The figures of the other women, a flute player, and the elements of nature form the background of the work. The colors of this part of the painting are close to the natural tones and can be considered rather dim. This color scheme is rather opposite to the diversity of vivid colors of the rest space of the work. The horizontal fringe between these parts is the shift from the natural green tones of the top part to the exotic pink color of the foreground in the middle part. Gauguin’s depictions of the ritual and Tahitian illustrations also depend on his interpretation of the historical issue of the role of civilization and the problem of colonialism. Thus, Tahiti is considered as the place where men can join the spirit of nature with the help of simple religious rituals.

Many critics also accentuate the idea that the center of the composition of Mahana No Atua is the figures of three women and the pool beneath their feet which also have their symbolic meanings (Gamboni; Walther). Gamboni concentrates on the depiction of the figures and the pool by using the complex color scheme as the way “to see this area as something primitive and primordial, a world of germination, fecundity, and nourishment, where life appears, passes itself on, and regenerates itself, even through destruction” (Gamboni 95). Three figures at the pool are depicted in meaningful poses which can reflect the painter’s philosophical ideas about human birth, life, and death. The figure on the left can be considered as the symbolic depiction of human birth. This figure is lying on the pink ground and touches the water of the mysterious and colorful pool. The central figure of the composition is a young woman who can be discussed as the symbolic embodiment of life. She is depicted with both her feet in the water of the pool. The figure at the right is presented with her back turned to the viewers. Moreover, Gamboni states that “the figure on the right, whose fetal position derives from a South American mummy, has often been associated with death” (Gamboni 94). Thus, it is possible to speak about portraying the life circle by using the symbolic meaning of three figures and the depiction of the mysterious pool.

The colors of the figures are close to the natural ones. Nevertheless, the contrast in the color scheme of the upper and lower parts is obvious. “The linear and chromatic echo in the cloud-crossed sky provides a supporting diagonal relationship between upper and lower parts” (Gamboni 94). This opposition can be considered as the most intensive while concentrating on the mysterious colors of the pool. Traditionally, the water of the pool should reflect the objects located on the beach or the sky. However, it is impossible to notice the contours of the physical objects in the depiction of the surface of the pool. According to Gamboni, “the lower third of the picture is occupied by a stretch of water composed of strange areas of color and a strip of green land bordering it at the bottom” (Gamboni 93). Thus, the space of the pool is interesting as a significant symbolic object. The water of the pool is not reflective, but full of the combination of different vivid colors. It is important to analyze the color scheme of the pool with references to the differences intones in the left and right parts of the painting which was discussed by Gamboni.

The researcher accentuates that “on the left, the outlines and shades of color compose a peaceful plant world, the world of seeds for example, and the lighter-colored tip stretching out near the bank reminds us of a sprouting seed” (Gamboni 94). Thus, the colors of the pool in this part of the painting are also more intensive in comparison with the right part; their contours are emphasized with the help of harsh distinctive outlines. However, the details of the right part of the pool and the combination of its colors give more space for the viewer’s imagination.

On the right the colors are warmer and more contrasted, the shapes more sinuous and interlinked, forming a dynamic animal world, possibly amoebae, and a mutually devouring one, suggested by the reversibility of the positive and negative shapes and by something resembling black maw agape right at the bottom (94 Gamboni).

It is possible to notice that the left part of the pool is depicted in opaque colors, but the contrast between the blue tones and the other colors allows speaking about the depth of the water in the pool. Nevertheless, the right part of the pool represents the symbolic and rather unclear combination of the unnatural shades with the accents on their abstract contours (Klein and Takahata). In his work, Paul Gauguin uses intensive unnatural and exotic colors which are not transparent and emphasize the unreality of the depiction. The combination of these colors cannot be explained from the point of realism or naturalism of the objects portrayed. The choice of the colors is a result of the painter’s specific intentions and his vision of the world based on imagination. Many critics focus on Gauguin’s rather experimental use of colors which is part of his synthesis art (Stokstad).

Moreover, Paul Gauguin’s Mahana No Atua reflects the peculiarities of the painter’s style in using the bold shapes and artificial forms which do not express the real forms of the physical objects but highlight the main idea of the artist’s work with the help of exaggerating some objects and details and diminishing the other elements in the painting. These devices are useful for the representation of the symbolic meaning of such Gauguin’s works as Mahana No Atua. The peculiarities of this painting’s interpretation depend on the understanding of Gauguin’s vision of the balance in the relationship between humans and nature and on the general analysis of Gauguin’s ‘Tahiti period’. Despite the fact Mahana No Atua was developed by the painter, not during his ‘Tahiti period’, it can be considered as the summary of Gauguin’s usage of the principles of ‘primitive’ art, naturalism, the elements of the pastoral tradition in depicting the nature, and religious symbolism (Stokstad).

Mahana No Atua is a result of Gauguin’s interpretation of the idea of the humans’ unity with nature based on the deep spirituality of the ‘primitive’ Tahitian people. Thus, Paul Gauguin expresses the peculiarities of his vision of the harmony and balance of nature and the role of the man in it with the help of depicting significant religious rituals and totems and with emphasizing the ideas of Primitivism in colors and shapes. The painter’s main devices which help to determine his style among the other painters’ works are the accents on exotic vivid and intensive tones, the unnatural contrasts of colors which attract the eye, the unreal proportions in depicting the humans’ figures, the usage of the heavy black outlines for accentuating the shape which is not typical for the art of impressionists.

In his extraordinary works where Primitivism is used within Post-Impressionism, Paul Gauguin creates the symbolic world which is full of vibrant colors and hidden meanings which depend on the principles of archaic art and the idea of the unity of humans and nature. Paul Gauguin’s approach to depicting reality through his imagination as the principle of the synthesis art influenced the works of many modern painters.

Works Cited

Gamboni. Dario. Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art. USA: Reaktion Books, 2002. Print.

Goldwater, Robert J. Primitivism in Modern Art. USA: Harvard University Press, 1986. Print.

Klein, Jan, and Naoyuki Takahata. Where Do We Come From?: The Molecular Evidence for Human Descent. USA: Springer, 2002. Print.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. USA: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

Walther, Ingo F. Paul Gauguin: 1848-1903: The Primitive Sophisticate. USA: Taschen, 1999. Print.