I’m reading Robert Hughes’ masterful art history book, The Shock of the New. It’s a dense, heavy, and amazing book. Reading about Gaughin’s Edenic paintings of Tahiti–which reminded me of French photographer Lucien Gauthier’s book Tahiti 1904-1921–I was sobered by Hughes’ assertion that Tahiti had already been ruined by alcoholism and venereal disease by the time the French painter arrived at the end of the 19th century.
Those paintings and photographs portray such beatific innocence, but they are deceptive. Ever since the Europeans first arrived at the end of the 16th century, the aboriginal inhabitants fell victim to disease, and everything else the invading sailing ships, marauding sailors, and Christian missionaries brought with them. So by the time Melville and Gaughin arrived, Tahiti had changed forever. It all reminded me of what I read years ago in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: “the white man is the devil”. In the name of Christ, the lustful sailors, racism directed at nonwhite peoples. Despite the beauties the South Seas still possess, reading Hughes’ account points to an Eden despoiled.← BACK