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Hiva Oa's Gaugin and Brel connection

Hiva Oa's Gaugin and Brel connection
Monday, 26 March, 2012

During World ARC’s short stay in Hiva Oa, many of the fleet are taking the time to visit the Calvart Cemetery in Atuona. Within this burial ground lies the renown post-impressionist artist Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) and the famous singer/songwriter, Jacques Romain Georges Brel (1929 – 1978).

When Gauguin died penniless on May 8, 1903, Hiva Oa’s priest seized his remaining canvases and burnt them in public as “the obscenities of a sad character, enemy of God and all that is honest”. One must wonder what they would be worth today, considering Paul Allen, billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, recently paid £20m for ‘Maternity’, a very average example of his Gauguin’s work.

Paul Gauguin was a painter who, for most of his life wanted to flee from the ‘disease’ of civilisation. Having left Europe and making it to Tahiti, Gauguin was still not content with his idealist view of the noble, savage state. Remote perfection was what Gauguin wanted and he could not have found a better place. He arrived in Hiva Oa in 1901 on the steamer ‘Croix de Sud’, and was rowed ashore in a native canoe with his canvases and baggage. He had persuaded the local Catholic Church that he had repented his dissolute ways, so they agreed to sell him a piece of beachfront. Here he built his studio out of bamboo and palm fronds, calling it 'Maison du Jouir', the house of pleasure — which kind of gave the game away. Beside the entrance he carved “Be amorous and you will be happy”.

A deceitful and crude man, but also a highly talented one having initiated the Primitive Art Movement with help from friend Pablo Picasso, and holding a heavy influence on nearly all Modern Art viewed in Galleries around the world. The vogue for Gauguin's work started soon after his death, and progressed. His paintings are rarely offered for sale nowadays and fetch high prices when they occasionally are traded.

Jacques Brel was born in Belgium though spent most of his life in France. His songs are not especially well known in the English-speaking world except in translation and through the interpretations of other singers, most famously Scott Walker. Others who have sung his work in English include, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield and Frank Sinatra. In French-speaking countries, Brel is also remembered as an actor and director. After achieving global recognition for his musical talent, Brel wanted to pursue another lifelong ambition – to sail around the world. In 1973 he began his voyage from France heading South East across the Atlantic. When he reached the Canary Islands, Brel, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He returned to Paris for treatment and later continued his ocean voyage. By 1975 he had reached the Marquesas Islands and settled in Hiva Oa. Three years later Jaques Brel died and is now at rest in Calvart Cemetery alongside Paul Gauguin.

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