Introduction: Gauguin's Composition in Day of the God (Mahana No Atua)
A careful study of Gauguin's stylized painting that was inspired by his South Seas experience.
Book: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 148.
Paul Gauguin spent most of his final French sojourn (September 1893–August 1895) in Paris promoting his work. This fostered retrospection, and he set about writing and illustrating a fictionalized account of his Tahitian experiences, entitled Noa Noa. Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua), one of very few paintings completed during this period, is closely aligned with Gauguin’s contemporaneous literary projects. Intimate in scale but monumental in conception, it is his attempt to synthesize all that he had learned and achieved in the South Seas. He also intended here to demonstrate that he could hold his own against Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s mural paintings, Georges Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, and recent work by the Nabis.
Set in a Tahitian landscape by the sea, the composition is divided into three horizontal bands. At the top, people perform ritual actions near a towering idol, which, like many figures in Gauguin’s Tahitian images, derives from photographs the artist owned of carved reliefs adorning the Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur (Java). In the middle band, three symmetrically disposed nudes stand out against a Weld of pink earth. The woman in the center, formally linked to the idol above, plays with her hair and dangles her legs in a pool. She is flanked by two sleeping figures of ambiguous gender. The lower portion of the composition is devoted to an evocation of water so stylized as to defy the laws of representation. With this frieze of amorphous, organic shapes in brilliant, contrasting hues, Gauguin posited color as "the language of dreams" (to quote a later text by the artist), or the primal essence of visual communication—a notion that was to resonate through the history of abstract painting.