Examination: Gauguin's Day of the God (Mahana No Atua)
An examination of Gauguin's painting, created from memory, of a Tahitian beach scene rich with references to Polynesian religion.
Brettell, Richard. Post-Impressionists. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987, p. 61.
Late in 1893, Paul Gauguin returned to France from Tahiti and spent much of 1894 either in Paris or in the small Breton village of Pont Aven. His health was poor and his financial situation even worse; this state of affairs was not made any easier by the fact that he was all but ignored by dealers and critics. Perhaps, as a result of this situation, his output of painting declined dramatically in 1894, especially when compared to his intensely productive years in Tahiti.
Of the sixteen paintings Gauguin executed during that year, only two can be called unqualified masterpieces, and both represent not Pont Aven or Paris, but Tahiti. One of these is Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua), a painting that is the pictorial summation of the painter’s experience on the South Pacific island. At once a travel picture and a devotional image, the composition deals more forthrightly than any other by Gauguin with Polynesian religion. At its center is the image of the idol Hina, which Gauguin derived less from Tahitian or Polynesian traditions than from Indian and Southeast Asian prototypes. For this reason, the painting can be interpreted as representing a universal, non-Christian religion.
Surrounding the idol is a beach scene with the mountains, huts, and trees Gauguin depicted so often in other Tahitian compositions. This scene includes dancers, a flute player, a pair of women carrying food or some offering to the god, and two figures in an embrace. Yet, this is merely a background for the real subject of the picture: the reflective pool and the three figures in the foreground. Basically abstract and nonrepresentational, the pool seems to have depth on the left side of the picture, but is utterly flat and two-dimensional on the right, and its colors do not correspond logically to others in the picture. Gauguin seems to have decided to represent some higher, more mysterious, reality in precisely the place where the actual world would be reflected. In this composition, the pool seems to express Gauguin’s belief that the central purpose of art is to evoke symbolic realms rather than to represent the visual world.
At the edge of the pool are three young women posing as the three ‘Ages of Man" — birth, life, and death. Significantly, the central figure, representing life, has placed both feet in the pool of colorful reflections; the figure at the left, representing birth, touches the water only with her toes; and the figure at the right, symbolizing death, turns away from the pool completely. Ultimately, Gauguin’s intent in this painting is unclear; he deliberately veiled his purpose, preferring to be mysterious rather than clear and avoiding simple pictorial representations in favor of complex, multivalent symbols.