"Gauguin was a revolutionary," says my tour guide Tim as we drive through the rainforests of Hiva Oa. "He fought against the local church, he fought for the rights of us Marquesans. He lived according to his own values, and we appreciate him here still."
With ornate geometrical tattoos covering his body, Tim is not the kind of guy you'd expect to wax poetically about a 19th century French painter. But then Hiva Oa is not your run-of-the-mill tourist island. With just 2,000 lucky inhabitants and one hotel, it's a place where the sight of a boy washing his horse in the surf on an empty black-sand beach, or copra drying in someone's front yard, is common. Hiva Oa is the second largest island in the Marquesas, a distinct group of 14 isles within French Polynesia, located about three hours northeast of the French Polynesian capital Papeete. It's the kind of far-flung spot on the map that would attract an artist looking to escape the clutches of the world, and that's what Paul Gauguin did here in 1901.
Destitute and unwell, the painter lived on Hiva Oa in his two-story thatched Maison du Jouir, or "House of Bliss." A former stockbroker, Gauguin had left his wife and five children years earlier to pursue his artistic dream at the end of the earth. (One of his letters home explains: "Life has no meaning unless one lives it with a will, at least to the limit of one's will.") He took up with various Polynesian women, and his freewheeling ways made the local missionaries livid. Less than two years after his arrival, he was dead at the age of 54 from self-induced dosages of morphine to dull the pain of his virulent syphilis. Practically unknown and penniless during much of his life, Gauguin is now considered the most important post-Impressionist painter who ever lived.
Hiva Oa's tiny main town of Atuona is where you'll find the Paul Gauguin Cultural Center, tel: (689) 927 897, a museum that opened in 2003 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his death. Galleries are adorned with reproductions of Gauguin's work and writings from his famous Tahitian period. Full-figured island women in bright colors glow from the muted walls. The rooms are themed around Gauguin's quotes such as "escaping to reach art" and "becoming part of a primitive culture."
At the back of the museum is a reconstruction of the Maison du Jouir, complete with a reproduction of Gauguin's elaborate front-door frame that reads in French: "Be mysterious ... Be loving and you will be happy." A wax figure of the artist with palette eerily stands at one end of the house.
Tim later takes me to Hanapaaoa on the north shore of the island, where we climb up a hill of loose volcanic rock. He doesn't tell me where we are heading, but knowing that the island has some of the most sacred ancient temple sites in French Polynesia, I'm not surprised when we come across a small, carved rock statue atop a stone platform.
"This tiki [carving] can be dangerous," Tim warns. "My friend moved it to his house once, and his wife walked in and screamed. She said my friend's face looked like it was melting." I decided not to touch the tiki myself, or the heap of human bones and skulls lying nearby. "Trash piles from cannibals from a hundred years ago!" Tim laughs. Having read of the island's violent past, I absolutely believe him.
Later, I watch the sunset from the infinity pool of the isle's token nod to tourism, the Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge, www.pearlresorts.com. I realize that I can make out the hillside Calvaire Cemetery, where Gauguin's grave site is lovingly festooned with flowers. As vivid stars begin to pop out of the sky, I think of the painter's words: "Life is hardly more than a fraction of a second. Such a little time to prepare oneself for eternity!"
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