My version of 'Vairumati'
“ She was tall, and the fire of the sun`s rays burned in the gold of her skin; all the mysteries of love breathed in the black night of her hair.” Paul Gauguin.
I wonder as I begin this painting if perhaps I have already gone about as far as I can go with the re-imaging of Gauguin`s paintings. Not that he has exhausted himself, but that my own thoughts can not stretch fast enough to keep up with him in this ‘resonating’ process. One more, I decide, but much bigger this time, and even then on my largest piece of paper I will still only be one third the size of the original. How splendid the real painting must be! I grid off the colour plate I am working from and transfer the lines of the painting to the textured paper.
I then use charcoal to outline the main lines and shadows and later switch to oil pastel and rough in the areas of colour: the first stage in the build up of layers of pigment and varnish. “Ahhh, nooo”, I think, as the pastel picks up on the raised texture and just sits there. I grab the spray can of varnish and wet down a section, start rubbing into it with a finger tip so the pastel combines with the varnish and spreads smoothly over the paper. Now I can see the white of the paper shining smoothly up through the colour. This is more like it!
I have chosen what I think is a particularly beautiful painting to work with this time; ‘Vairumati’, that combines the beauty of a Polynesian woman with imagery from ancient sculpture and a symbolic white bird stepping on a lizard. Such a conglomeration, so effortlessly synthesized, with the symbolic spiritual colours in red soil and yellow bed blazing forth. This is holy ground! There is so much to work with here.
It is when I start work on the two shadowy figures in the background that I begin to really transition through the picture plane. Two women form a kind of chorus section in the shadows: one carries a tray of offerings, the other is singing and signing this painted story with hand gestures. In memory, I am back on our sailing travels through the islands of the South Pacific. We have stopped in New Caledonia during ‘The Festival of the Arts’, a gathering for all the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, and we are watching a group of young people from the isolated islands of Wallis and Fortuna sing and act out a traditional song of fishing on the coral reef. One girl catches my attention, her graceful hand movements, the shy glances she takes at the crowd gathered on the grass around her group captivate me. In her person she distills all that we have experienced in the months it has taken us to traverse the South Pacific, all the islands with their reefs and lagoons, the high volcanic mountains and low coral atolls all swept by the Trade winds. I know now why Gauguin has painted his particular girl into his canvas. She too represents all that immensity to him.
When Gauguin described Vairumati in his book ‘Noa Noa’ he chose the easy road - a sexy young woman- but there is little of that in this image of her or really of any of the other women he painted. Yes, many times he paints them completely or partially nude, but typically as in this painting they, at the very least, represent an exalted image of sexuality, something ancient and of the spirit. The reds and yellows, the bits of temple architecture, the gold of her body and the worshiping choir behind her all say in picture form what he could not express in words. That girl I saw was Vairumati also and the song she sang, Gauguin heard too, -his painting is just another version of this great thing that sings through all our veins. The world is not just God`s creation, the spirit is in us and all around us, all is holy. Vairumati is beautiful, she shines, we all worship her.