BACK TO TAHITI AND MOREA
Once back in Tahiti, Theo hired a lorry, loaded Gauguin’s tombstone aboard and made a beeline for the museum and marched into the office of the curator, a kindly old gentleman, half Tahitian and half French. Proudly Theo offered the stone to him.
“We don’t want it,” the curator said.
“What do you mean you don’t want it?” Theo said, stunned.
“Just what I said. We don’t want it,” the curator replied.
Theo fired back, raising his voice this time: “Do you realize this is Paul Gauguin’s tombstone and I paid good money for it.”
“We don’t want it,” the man repeated.
“You cannot be serious,” Theo shouted. “This is Paul Gauguin’s tombstone. Come look. You can see his name, and the date he died.”
The curator followed Theo outside to the parked lorry. He looked at the tombstone. “Maybe you are right. It’s Gauguin’s name, and the date he died is correct.”
“Then you will take it,” Theo said breathing a sigh of relief. “Not at all,” the curator calmly replied. “This is the tenth Paul Gauguin tombstone we’ve been offered in the past few years.” Theo couldn’t even give the stone away to anyone.
Feeling the disappointment and the loss of four hundred francs, Theo still wanted to give Tahiti one last fling. Leaving Lucas at the Pacific Hotel in Papeete he went to paint for a time in Tauteria at the far end of the island. He stayed in the house where Robert Louis Stevenson had lived and worked. But that proved to be a bad mistake. He soon grew weary of visitors coming to see where the author had written Treasure Island. The bungalow hotel, which was but a replica of Stevenson’s original house, was called “Stevenson Camp Hotel” and was built by a Czechoslovakian expatriate named Milos van Vivnac. Theo found him quite interesting, especially when he learned he was escaping from Nazi Germany. He had some harrowing tales to tell.
Theo spent his daylight hours at Tauteria painting the volcanoes and seascapes. At night he and Milos drank themselves silly on coconut wine while the vahines from the village came and danced for them on the verandah. Milos laughed when he saw a village girl clad in a cheap calico sarong. “You know she spent the night in my bed,” he chuckled. He took half of Theo’s paintings in exchange for Theo’s keep. When Theo returned to Papeete, he joked with Lucas that one day art dealers might come to Tahiti looking for lost Theo Meiers and they might well find one or two oils in fishermen’s huts that old Milos had swapped for a catch of fish.
Back in Papeete, Theo looked over his canvases. He was aware, unwittingly, that he was following in the steps of Paul Gauguin and this did not please him. He insisted he was not an imitator. Thirty years before, the French artist had captured the essence and soul of Tahiti on canvas and now, in a real sense, Gauguin was an albatross that hung around Theo’s neck. Whatever Theo accomplished, he knew he would be likened to Gauguin. He felt a need to reach beyond Gauguin, and it was by chance that he did, but not immediately. He slowly began to find himself. He knew he was good. A person knows when he is good and he doesn’t have to ask others to tell him he is. The bell inside rings. He remembered once he painted the portrait of a banker and when his wife saw the picture she was horrified. “He looks just like a master-butcher,” she cried.
“Good,” Theo replied. “That was how he struck me, like a butcher.”
Theo had to be true to his art. He knew as a painter he had to take the colors on his palette and commit them to real life. The process took time to learn. To paint a blue in a tropical landscape, as blue as it actually was, did nothing to the picture. The color was there, the blue was there, but it did not come alive. The tropical landscape is not at all as we see it. It is, rather, an experiment. This landscape for Theo was warm in tone, and so, in simple fashion, he began to paint his pictures over a reddish priming coat. And then the green tones and the other colors stood out.
When the picture was finished, it was redder than nature, but yet conveyed the landscape accurately. One must translate the scene and capture the moment, he concluded, and that became his secret. He liked to work with blue outlines, as the blue to him was a sort of handwriting that went across the picture as to emphasize a specific feature of the painting. As he studied his canvases before him he knew he departed from nature to a certain degree. He was less concerned with an imitation of nature than with a representation of his own thoughts, his own dreams. But by no stretch of the imagination was abstract painting to his taste. Theo’s mind was too much involved with the senses than with the visual, not tied up with a false depiction of reality. Theo sought the simplest form of expression. He loved music, all music, the classics, Balinese gamelan, even Chinese music, and he knew that the beauty of music had naturally influenced his painting. No, Theo learned from Gauguin; he learned from the colors of the tropics, but he did not copy Gauguin.
After three months in Tahiti, Theo and Lucas separated for a spell. Theo wanted to paint by himself on neighboring Moorea. His stay there lasted three months. He had a difficult time deciding whether it was Hiva Oa or Moorea that he liked the best. He did like Moorea for its two bays that cut deep into the island, bays where lofty jagged mountains dropped down right to the water’s edge. The beauty was powerful, like an elixir. When he painted now, he painted with tears in his eyes.
Less than 1,500 people lived on the island. Captain James Cook brought attention to one of the bays when he anchored HMS Discovery and HMS Resolution there. One of the bays that bears his name to this day-Cook’s Bay. And Herman Melville wrote elegantly about Moorea in his book Omoo.
Theo was intrigued by the shadows the cliff cast, changing from hour to hour, so wonderful for an artist. He remembered so well, not so many years before, how he and his friend Karl Moor studied compositions together back in Berne. The two were very much interested in light and shade. They walked under the pale glare of flickering gas lamps in the streets in Berne, and painted what they saw. Anyone who saw them thought they were crazy, painting at night with torchlight in hand. He attempted to do this on Moorea but the mosquitoes drove him mad and he had to retreat indoors.
Theo rented a house on a small promontory with a marvelous view of Tahiti from his porch. He wrote: “I could sit at my easel and watch any boat that came over from Tahiti. If anything looked promising through my binoculars, I’d run down to the jetty to greet the boat.” He returned to Tahiti with a bundle of finished canvases.
Back in Papeete, Theo and Lucas were fortunate to be the guests of a very charming gentleman, Jean Pierre Wongue. “Wong is the correct name, Lee Wong, but I had to change it when I came to Tahiti.” He told how the Chinese came to Tahiti. An American adventurer William Stewart brought them here in the first place. “He arrived from America in 1860 just as Americans started killing one another in the Civil War,” he explained. ”Aside from the dreadful deaths-fathers killing sons and brothers killing brothers-the cotton industry, the lifeblood of the South, was suffering. Steward saw the similarities of the American South and Tahiti and soon realized cotton could grow in Tahiti. He began a cotton plantation, but he could never get the Tahitians to labor in cotton fields so he got authorization from the government to import 1,500 Chinese laborers from Canton in China. The Civil War ended and the cotton industry bounded back in the American south faster than anyone could imagine, and Stewart’s plantation went bust. He fled, without repatriating the Chinese back to their homeland and the French government in the midst of a war in Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. The Chinese were left to fend on their own, and in a short time they were running all the businesses in Papeete.”
Mr. Wongue was the Manager of the Banque de I’Indochine. He and his brother had studied in America. His brother returned to Canton in southern China, and established himself as a respected doctor there, while Mr. Wongue was offered the management of the bank in Papeete where Theo and Lucas deposited what little money they had.
Mr. Wongue lived in a fine colonial home outside of Papeete. His wife had died only a few months before and his two sons were off studying in France. He himself, in his mid-fifties, was a diabetic, and his hopes of one day returning to China had long ago been dashed by his poor health. He took an interest in Theo and Lucas, most likely out of loneliness, and invited them often to dine with him at home. His meals were superb and he fancied himself a gourmet chef Theo, too, took a delight in cooking and together the two men quickly bonded. The banker taught Theo the many intricacies of Chinese cuisine with everything from 100-year old eggs to steamed dumplings. Theo in turn taught him to make pate fois gras. Theo took note that the man never invited his countrymen to dine with him, and he asked Mr. Wongue his reason for not doing so.
“Not on your life,” the banker answered, being the shrewd businessman that he was, like all overseas Chinese. “If I did that, they’d be bound to ask me for a loan at the bank the next morning!”
The banker brought out a laugh but beneath it Theo knew he was serious.