TO THE SOUTH SEAS
Painting His Date
Theo wanted more than anything else to see the Marquesas. After all it was here that Gauguin lived and here he had died. He and Lucas booked passage aboard Marechal Foch, the last of the old 19th century three-mast schooners that plied the South Pacific. Theo was so excited Lucas had a hard time calming him down. “Easy, Theo, easy,” he kept saying. There was reason, of course, for Theo to be excited. The vessel was a magnificent double planked oak vessel with skipjack masts, jutting bowsprit and ratlines running up the rigging. A crow’s nest three-fourths up the foremast was an invitation for Theo to climb the rigging while the vessel was still anchored in the harbor. Theo was like a child when school was out and summer vacation began.
Loaded with copra and bound for San Francisco, the schooner was scheduled to make a stop at the Marquesas to pick up more cargo and a fresh supply of water and some live pigs. The helmsman, as chance would have it, was the bearded old Tahitian who had played the priest in the film “Tabu.” Theo was reliving his dream. Seeing the old man was more than he bargained for.
Immediately after setting sail, Theo approached the old man as he stood at the helm and quickly bombarded him with questions. After talking with him at length, Theo returned to his cabin and took out his journal. Obviously disappointed, he wrote: “I had realized that this motion picture, which had impressed me so very deeply years before, was pure, unadulterated fiction, just like the piously beautiful compositions were, no matter how exquisite. Still, I wanted to live them, to see and experience them.”
Theo returned to the helm, this time to sketch the old man. He did one quick sketch and began another. The old man, seeing him start again, said, “You got one, what’d yah wanta another one fur?” Theo couldn’t explain, not in their limited English, but then, some things can’t be explained in any language.
Three days out of Tahiti the schooner ran into a full gale, and so severe was the storm that the half-breed skipper ordered a bishop who was aboard to make ready for their last mass. The bishop was the wine-drinking, red-eyed, unshaven Monsignor of Atouna returning to his mission. He and Theo didn’t see eye to eye from the moment they met. “Can you not behave with your language when I am aboard?” the bishop shouted when Theo cursed at the habitually drunk skipper. The feud was not to end until the schooner anchored in Taiohae on Nuku Hiva.
The storm subsided and the beauty of the South Seas revealed itself as they ghosted along with the trade winds on a starboard tack. With each landfall they came upon, each island that fell into view, Theo could not decide if what he was looking at was more beautiful than the last landfall he beheld. The tropics can do that to one. “I must come back here one day,” he said, a statement he declared so often before. Each time he was just as serious. “No, I swear this is more beautiful than the last one!” How many times had he said this?
Marechal Foch slipped quietly into Taiohae on Nuku Hiva and dropped anchor in the wide spacious bay. Theo could see that Nuku Hiva was a volcanic island. There was no mistaking that. She was not one of those atolls that grew up ever so slowly over the centuries from coral polyps. No, Nuku Hiva had sprung up suddenly, from violent volcanic upheaval at a time when the earth was much different. Greenery clung to the very summits, and cascading waterfalls tumbled hundreds of feet, sending off a thousand rainbows in the downpour of afternoon sunlight. To
Theo the beauty was overpowering. Here, indeed, were the islands so elegantly described by Herman Melville in his book Typee and Robert Louis Stevenson’s In the South Seas. Theo was so anxious to get ashore when the village of Taiohae came into view that he would have swum ashore had the crew taken much longer to launch the longboat. “Good you didn’t,” Lucas said. “The old man said there are sharks in the harbor.” Theo looked for sharks and was disappointed when he didn’t see any.
Theo lost no time befriending Bob McKitridge, an island trader who ran the trading store in Taiohae. Bob had never met Gauguin, for the artist lived on another island, but he knew of him. Bob, in fact, knew all the foreigners who came to the islands. “We have scarcely two thousand people now in all six of our islands,” Bob said. “When Melville came through – now mind you, that was before my time – there were over two hundred thousand souls, and by the time the French took over in the 1850s the numbers were about sixty thousand. This was, you know, American before the French. Both the Chinese and the white man killed off the natives with their diseases.”
After loading cargo, Marechal Foch, sailed off to San Francisco leaving Theo and Lucas to their own devices. Lucas scribbled in his notebook bits of information he gleaned from. Long talks with Bob as both of them sat on the verandah in front of the store, and both dozing off most of the time.
Theo, on the other hand, hiked into the hills with his sketchpad in hand and, once, he set out to find the valley where the natives had imprisoned Melville when they were still cannibals. He didn’t recollect ever finding the valley, and even if he had, there was no telling if it was the same valley Melville described in Typee.
Theo was never hesitant to admit he was forever hopeful of finding a lost Gauguin. Perhaps, he figured, he might have success and find a painting on Hiva Oa where Gauguin had lived and where he had died and was buried. McKitridge arranged, on his hand-cranked powered radio, for an inter-inland trading schooner to carry him and Lucas to the island. The trading schooner had a cargo of dried copra to pick up at Atuona, Gauguin’s island, and could swing by and pick them up. Had not McKitridge arranged for their passage they might have needed to wait weeks for a passage. Frightful as it was, there was always the thought that at some islands the natives had to wait six months for a trading schooner to arrive, and even then it was without certainly. Theo remembered Frisbee, the storekeeper from Puka Puka, telling him that sometimes the islanders waited a year before they saw a sail on the horizon. It was only a day’s voyage but the two intrepid travelers felt that if it lasted any longer they might have been eaten alive by the copra beetles aboard.
Theo was overwhelmed by every landfall that befell him and Hiva Oa Island was no different when it came into view. He was overjoyed when they entered Atuona Bay and the village of Atuona appeared beyond, framed against a magnificent tropical setting. With Temirtau peak towering 3,980 feet above the town, it would make a fine painting, Theo thought. “If I do the painting,” he quibbled with Lucas, “no one would believe it to be real.” It took Theo no time to decide that it was here, on Hiva Oa, that he would return after fulfilling his agreement with the Idiot’s Club in Basel. Lucas smiled at Theo’s words.
“How many islands does this make it where you want to return?” Lucas asked. Theo acted like he didn’t hear him.
Of course, the fact that Atuona was the final home of Paul Gauguin had some bearing on Theo’s decision. The island took on a deep meaning, a kind of veneration for Theo. He and Lucas had hardly settled in their Chinese hotel in town when Theo set out to find Gauguin’s grave site. He found it, after climbing a high hill at Calvary Cemetery overlooking the anchorage on Atuona Bay. Theo was appalled when he saw the site. It was derelict, unkempt with the headstone missing. A crude wooden cross with the name Gauguin painted on it marked the spot. Nevertheless, Theo paid his respect to the artist and he climbed the hill several times after that to visit the grave.
Although Hiva Oa at the time was the capital and the center of government for the Marquesas shops and stores were sparse and when Theo stepped ashore he sadly knew instantly there would be no chance of finding a lost Gauguin. The artist had lived on Hiva Oa for twenty-two months and was in frequent trouble with the French government for siding with the natives in various matters. For one offense he was sentenced to three months in goal and fined a thousand francs. He died on May 7th, 1903. His furniture, paintings, books and sculptures were sent to Papeete for auction to pay his fine. He painted over a hundred oils during that period and his last one was held upside down and according to one reporter, sold as the Niagara Falls for seven francs.
Theo was aware that had not the British novelist Somerset Maugham brought Paul Gauguin to public notice he might not have achieved the notoriety that he did. How many fine impressionist artists might there be out there who go unrecognized and become lost in the passage of time? Maugham published his Gauguin-inspired novel, The Moon and Sixpence, in 1919. Gauguin’s paintings at that time were still practically unknown outside of the art circles of Montparnasse.