Theo kept his world hidden to himself. It was fantasy he kept stored away in the back of his mind. It probably would have remained there, forever, un-nurtured and perhaps even to be forgotten, hadn’t it been for one single event that shocked him to new awakening. It was a movie film that he saw. It was to turn Theo Meier’s world topsy-turvy.
It was not even a movie film as such. It was a documentary by German filmmaker Friedrich Murnau that depicted the Island of Bora Bora in French Polynesia. It was tided “Tabu.” It shocked its European audiences with bare breasted island girls frolicking across the screen. The film was banned in America, making it even more enviable on the Continent. Here was a story of two characters right out of Rousseau’s noble savage, Matahi and Reri, two young people in love on an island whose inhabitants still lived their lives according to traditions that went back hundreds of years. The story goes, a ship came to their South Pacific island, and on that ship was Hitu, who bore the news that Reri must leave her home to be the sacred virgin on an island far away. She was taboo, a human being that cannot be desired. Never had European audiences seen any film like it. The tale was told with images both lush and realistic, powerful enough to win a Best Cinematography Academy Award for photography that year. The native islanders who acted in the film were photographed from low angles and pictured against a sky of dramatic clouds.
What further indication did Theo need that the noble savage was very much alive? But “Tabu” was not the end only the beginning of Theo’s awakening. Soon came another film that intensified even more his growing desire to escape to the South Sea. This second film was Victor van Plessen’s “Island of Demons.” Indeed, the fascinating world of the South Seas began to take an irresistible hold of Theo. After seeing the films, Theo knew he had to see the South Seas for myself. He had to find these noble savages and paint them, as Gauguin had. Theo was twenty-four years old when he made up his mind to go to Tahiti. So in 1931, against the advice of his friends, he began to plan his trip in earnest. He didn’t tell his mother and father, nor Helga. But keeping a secret in Basel was near impossible and when word did get around that Theo Meier planned to go to the South Seas, everyone was convinced he had lost his reasoning. His plan was too outlandish to be taken seriously. A trip to Tahiti, to the far reaches of the world, people would say, was impossible. Where would the money for the trip come from? Theo had been earning hardly enough money to pay his rent. He owed Max Opplinger’s shop on the corner a fortune for the canvases that he had bought on credit. Theo became the laugh about town. His father laughed the loudest, and Helga merely fed him more pastry that she sneaked from her father’s bakery. “‘Here, you will like this,” she would say to humor him.
There was one man, however, who didn’t laugh at him. He was Theo’s close friend, Lucas Staehelin. You might say with Lucas it was quite the opposite. After listening to Theo rave about the wonders of the South Seas, and joining him for a viewing of “Island of Demons,” Lucas announced over a beer at a street cafe where they frequently met that he would go with Theo to Tahiti.
Theo thought at first Lucas was joking but when he realized Lucas was not only serious but determined as well, he accepted the idea. Now they made plans together.
The one obstacle standing in Theo’s way, obviously, was money.
But a thing like the lack of money wasn’t going to stop him. He would get money. He never doubted it. With Lucas money was not an issue. His family had money and although they were opposed to the venture they agreed to support him financially, “to get it out of his system.” Theo thought it hysterical that he would travel ‘to get it out of his system” when in reality it was the opposite. “We travel to get it into our system,” he ranted.
Although Theo didn’t have the mind of a businessman he was capable of coming up with business propositions. When he first mentioned his idea to Lucas, Lucas called it a “con scene” rather than a business venture. But Lucas slowly changed his mind when he heard Theo out. In fact, Lucas even lauded him. The idea was ingenious, depending upon, of course, from which side you viewed it. His scheme, after giving it considerable thought and working it out down to the last detail, could work if Theo could convince the right people that he was sincere, and Theo was good at that, convincing people. He would find twenty people willing to pay twenty francs a month for one year as a subscription for his paintings. They could make a preliminary choice of the paintings they wanted before Theo left, or, if they wished, they could choose from those canvasses he brought back for an exhibition he would stage at an art gallery in town. It was such a bold idea that many people, some Theo hardly knew, went for it. The first man to sign up as member of the “Theo Meier Club,” as it had been tentatively called, was the man who came to read the electricity meter. The second was a police inspector; the next Robert Spreng, a photographer friend, and so it went. Soon Theo had rustled up all twenty members. Upon hearing of his success, one of his friends asked: “How on earth did you get hold of all of these idiots to give you money?” Theo thereafter called his club, in private only, “The Idiot’s Club.” Roland Ziegler, another close friend and financier, but not considering himself an idiot, paid Theo half the yearly total of subscriptions as a loan and agreed to see to it that the payments were regularly remitted. That’s what you call having confidence in someone, Theo boasted. He was now solvent, and he had moved up the ladder of success, for Ziegler had also arranged for Theo to have an account at the private bank of Saracen-one of Basel’s most exclusive financial institutions.
But poor Lucas, he felt left out with Theo getting all the notoriety. Theo would be painting; he would be taking with him his paints, his easel and his sketchpads. What did he, Lucas, have to take? Nothing. He began to feel that the trip for him should serve some purpose rather than drinking and partying around the world. “What’s wrong with the that?” Theo scolded him. “I work for both of us and we both drink and make party.” Theo would have preferred it that way but then as luck would have it, the Basel Ethnological Museum approached Lucas to do a study of the various ethnic groups they would encounter en route. An assignment but it wasn’t what Lucas had in mind. He felt uncomfortable about accepting the assignment in which he had to pretend being an authority of something he .knew nothing about. “What do I know about primitive ethic groups?” he said to Theo
“What do the professors at the museum know?” Theo ranted. “They haven’t been there. They just read stuff. We are going where university professors don’t go. It’s simple. All you have to do is keep a journal and scribble it with notes about insects and the size of the big tits of the women and our making love with them and one day you will be famous.” Lucas didn’t think it was so funny, but Theo did. He laughed at the thought, his big gargantuan laugh bursting out. Theo had a thing against academics and he didn’t hesitate to make it known. He reminded Lucas about Margaret Mead who had been in the news and everyone was talking about her for her anthropological work in the South Seas. Wasn’t that all that Margaret Mead did when she went to live with the natives in Samoa, take down notes, and out of it came her book Coming of Age in Samoa. To Theo it was all hogwash. He had grown bitter at the establishment after his sojourn in Berlin. He was happy to get away from Hitler’s Germany where painters were told what to paint and banished if they didn’t. He swore no one would ever tell him how to paint or what to paint.
Lucas still was not fully convinced that this was the right thing to do, to masquerade as a scientist, regardless of how much ribbing he got from Theo. But what finally did win him over was two letters of recommendation the museum gave him and Theo; one for the Swiss Consul in Sydney and the other for the governor of Tahiti. The letters were intended to give Lucas some help in collecting ethnological material for the museum. Theo in a jesting mood presented Lucas with a gift-an empty notebook. “Now all you have to do is fill it up,” Theo said, “and I will give you the material to write about.” At that they both laughed and shook hands.
Now the only thing remaining for Theo to do was for him to tell his father and Helga that he was leaving. He did that, as painful as it was, but promising he’d be back in a year.