Sorry if it’s too early to be talking about Christmas, but here’s another picture from Gauguin: Maker of Myth at Tate Modern.
One aspect of the exhibition which I found really interesting was Gauguin’s use of religious imagery. Many of his works include religious elements – some contain classic Christian symbols or scenes, others include references to Tahitian religion such as idols or representations of Tahitian gods. And Gauguin as he represents these two kinds of religion, it becomes fairly obvious which he prefers and esteems more highly.
There are lots of paintings around where the nativity scene is represented in a different society or culture (there are just a couple of examples above). In 2005 Royal Mail produced stamps featuring a 17th Century painting of the infant Jesus and his mother as Hindus, and in 2008 the Church Advertising Network distributed a poster depicting the nativity in a bus shelter. Often paintings like this are intended to highlight the fact that Jesus wasn’t the usual chubby white baby we imagine, relevant only to wealthy middle class society, but that the important aspect of his birth was that he was born human.
But I don’t think that’s what Gauguin was doing when he painted “Be Be”. Gauguin was desperate to escape the conventions and demands of the western “civilised” world, and he looked for that escape in the “savage” land and culture of Tahiti, including in its religious practices.
So what is Gauguin doing here? I have a couple of ideas. Firstly, I think it’s probably about shock – the idea that the Holy Family should be represented as Tahitian “savages” would have been shocking. I think he might also be making a statement about the way people regarded the story of the birth of Christ; although I don’t think he’s emphasising the universal relevance of the story, he could be challenging the assumptions that people make about it.
But what I think is really interesting is that the focus of the painting isn’t the baby, or the woman holding him, or even the angel standing next to her. The nativity scene in the lower right of the painting seems to be pointing to the woman in the top right. Although it isn’t painted very clearly, it looks like a woman lying on a bed on the other side of the stable, with a kind of halo around her.
Could there be two nativities going on here? The characters in the bottom right are looking at the woman on the far side of the stable as she gives birth, so that actually there are two nativities, two births happening – one has just happened, and another is about to. In painting it like this, the nativity becomes much less remarkable. Babies are born all the time. Gauguin intentionally chooses to focus on the Tahitian baby that has already been born, rather than the one which is about to be born (which could, perhaps, be the one we’re waiting for – the Messiah we would put on our Christmas cards). He’s showing us what he thinks of the nativity and the Christianity it brought about – his affinity is clearly with the Tahitians.
This is just a thought that’s been buzzing around my head since I saw the picture – I’d be interested to hear what you think…