Reading Gauguin in Bora Bora: A Marriage of Travel, Art & Literature

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“As they were to me, so I was to them, an object for observation, a cause of astonishment – one to whom everything was new, the one who was ignorant of everything. For I knew neither their language, nor their customs, not even the simplest, most necessary manipulations. As each one of them was a savage to me, so was I a savage to each one of them….And which of us two was wrong?”

 Noa Noa, The Tahitian Journal, Paul Gauguin

From Depressed in Seattle to Swimming in Beauty in Bora Bora

In late November, 2013, I was playing around on Expedia, depressed about winter settling in in Seattle, with the gray seeping into me, plugging in dream trips on to get me through the day. As luck, or the gods would have it, I happened on a two-week package to Bora Bora. $2000 round-trip airfare plus hotel.

It was a crazy idea, but tempting enough to let it sit there on my computer.

I had inherited a bit of money from my late father, which was burning a hole in my bank account, unaccustomed as I was to having any extra green.

I called my trusty sister who knows how down I can get from the winter blues in the Pacific Northwest, and she told me in no uncertain terms to “Just hit the button.” God love her! And that’s what I did. I was now scheduled to spend my Christmas break from the university in Bora Bora, a place I never dreamed I would be able to visit, a place that seemed, in fact, only a dream.

A Marriage of Literature, Art and Travel

I have recently started to meld my love of travel with art and literature, trying to see a place through the eyes of the artists and writers who lived and worked there, who were inspired by it.

As a long-time lover of Paul Gauguin’s work, it seemed only fitting then to reread his Tahitian Journal, Noa Noa, while sitting alone on the beaches of Bora Bora.

Noa Noa, written by Gauguin’s about his first years in Tahiti, is filled with sketches of many of the works that we know him for, along with descriptions of the dream-like world he inhabited there, a world he admired and adopted as his own:

“Civilization is falling from me little by little. I am beginning to think simply, to feel only very little hatred for my neighbor – rather, to love him. All the joys – animal and human – of a free life are mine.” 


A few facts: Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848, married in 1873 at the age of 25, and fathered five children with this wife. Painting was only a hobby in those early years when he worked as a businessman, but he gradually became obsessed with his art, eventually leaving his wife and children in order to paint full time.

He worked in Paris with other artists of his day, Degas, Cezanne, Pisarro and Van Gogh (with whom he had a very troubled relationship). Some speculate that Van Gogh cut his ear off after or because of a fight with Gauguin.

He had mistresses and children by several women. In 1891, he sailed to Tahiti on a French cultural mission, where he set himself up in a hut outside the capital city of Papeete, taking a young Tahitian girl of fourteen years as his wife. He then began to paint in earnest, producing sixty-six of his most famous works in two years.

Though he returned to France periodically, he spent many of the remaining years of his life in French Polynesia, where he died in 1903 at the age of 55, of what is thought to have been syphilis.

A Bastard or Enlightened?

Today, as in his own time, Gauguin has had his critics. A 2001 article from the Guardian claims that the stories of his life in Tahiti, recorded in Noa Noa, were a sham, a fantasy that Gauguin created only to raise interest in his work, and heavily plagiarized:

“In a final attempt to spark the public’s interest, Gauguin wrote Noa Noa, his autobiographical account of his life in Tahiti. ‘Writing the book was the beginning of Gauguin’s writing of an erotic life for himself,’. ..He created a life for public consumption as part of his campaign to make his exhibitions-and therefore his future- a success.” ‘

My feminist and politically correct side tells me to hate him, but I wonder if I would have been drawn into his charm as many other women of his day seemingly were. Reading Noa Noa makes me think Gauguin had a spark of enlightenment about the way the European world of his time looked at “primitive” cultures, such as those found in Tahiti and the South Pacific. So I may have liked him regardless of his chauvinism.

Captivated by Color & Lushness

As an art lover and photographer, I can only imagine the delight that Gauguin found in his life as a painter in the South Pacific. Beautiful women and men, so different from those he knew in Europe. Dense color and lush landscapes at every turn. The sea so blue it hurts your eyes and inhabits your dreams. Greens of every shade with splotches of red and purple thrown into the mix. Whimsical color. Intense beauty. 

Bora Bora, like Tahiti and other islands in the South Pacific are truly slices of Paradise. Like Fletcher Christian’s character in Mutiny on the Bounty, we want to give ourselves over to this beauty, to leave our “civilized” 9 to 5 lives behind, our 9 to 5 jobs, to just tear up that ticket home, and spend the rest of our days here in the sun.

I, too, was tempted to stay in Bora Bora, and I still dream about the air, the color and the water. As Gauguin noted:

“I am far, far away from the prisons that European houses are. A Maori hut does not separate man from life, from space, from the infinite…” 

Final Thoughts

As someone who has been captivated by Gauguin’s work, the many canvases inspired by his life on Tahiti, I want desperately to believe in Gauguin’s holiness. As a modern woman, must I hate him? Was he a lout, a bastard, and a liar? Another European romanticizing the “savage” world? Can we love the art and despise the artist? Might I believe that just for a moment in his writing of Noa Noa that Gauguin was the man he wrote himself to be? Made better by the wisdom of this place.

“I am leaving, older by two years, but twenty years younger; more barbarian than when I arrived, and yet much wiser. Yes, indeed the savages have taught many things to the man of an old civilization; these ignorant men have taught him much in the art of living and happiness.”

Bora Bora. Absolute beauty. Blueness times ten. It messes with your head. 

Power to the Journey



Mary Kay Seales is a travel writer, copywriter and photographer from Seattle, Washington. She is the author of The Beginner’s Guide to the French Riviera: Stop Dreaming & Start Packing.

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