Campbell Meets Tehura

Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, The Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau), 1892, oil on canvas, 92,7×72,4 cm

In 1891, Gauguin abandoned his wife and five children to move to French Polynesia to escape modern life and immerse himself in a different culture. In this painting he depicts his new, fourteen-year-old native bride Teha’amana (called Tehura in his letters), lying naked, awake and terrified. Gauguin himself gave at least five different explanations for the painting in his letters to relatives, friends and fellow artists.

“… immobile, naked, lying face downward on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear… might she not with her frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights…”

According to the most current version the old woman seated behind her is a ghost and the title may refer to either the girl imagining the ghost, or the ghost imagining her. The figure of the old woman instead of a bizarre demon may have been used as a symbol more familiar to a European audience. We can not be sure if Gauguin one night had really found the girl lying in fear when he arrived home late or it is simply a masterful composition of a nude.

“… in this position she is on the verge of being indecent. But I want it that way: the lines and movement are interesting to me. And so, I give her, in depicting the head, a bit of a fright…”

Then, of course, it’s not hard to imagine that the girl was frightened of Gauguin himself.

A hundred years later as an homage to Paul Gauguin supermodel Naomi Campbell and photographer Peter Lindbergh shot an editorial  in Jamaica with garments from Yves Saint Laurent, and Christian Lacroix. One of the seven images which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1992 is composed as a clear allusion to Gauguin’s painting in the tropical paradise. A digital inkjet print of this photograph realized USD 49,000 in 2008 at Christie’s.

Naomi Campbell
Naomi Campbell (Jamaica, 1992) photographed by Peter Lindbergh for Harper’s Bazaar, Paul Gauguin Story (47×58cm, digital inkjet print, signed, titled, dated and numbered ‘7/25’ in pencil on the verso.