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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The contrasted image of colonial Tahiti: between English and French-speaking artists

Philippe Bachimon

Texte intégral

1July 2009

2During the colonial period from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, writers, (even more do than artists), followed by photographers and film-directors, acted as an intermediary that represented this otherness that was the “islands”, the most renowned of them being Tahiti.

3Faraway and inaccessible, they made us dream of a Europe that was waking up up to a mass culture, mainly portrayed through writing – be it a travel book, a novel or a mixture of the two genres – often published in “series”, before being shown on the big screen and the art salon, as it was reserved for the social elite. These forms of media were the support for worldwide access, while local culture remained enclosed and retreated to the familial oral tradition to the point of getting lost in it. The novel, story or travel reports left a mark on the way in which people thought, and the most popular of them were turned into plays or made into films that proved to be a tremendous hit with a predominantly urbanised and literate audience.

4Thus, the Western imagination of otherness was fixated on the experience and souvenirs of travellers, who translated this into images, performances and writings. Exoticism was expressed vicariously, despite being naturalised for a certain period of time and subject to delocalised reconstruction at colonial exhibitions. We will try to reconstruct this aesthetic image of Tahiti by analysing the works of artists who came to Tahiti. Invariably, the same scenario seems to happening again. They arrived in Polynesia with representations of the fact that they were facing a perceived and experienced reality: an on-going in situ experience, with their duration being varied. Their work was often completed after their return to Europe and America before being shown to the public.

5In the colonial period, the visits of 60 writers, artists, film-directors, composers or photographers to Tahiti were registered. This modest group was well balanced with the number of English-speaking (six from America and four from the United kingdom) and French-speaking (nine from France and two from Belgium) writers. Among the artists, there was a clear imbalance between the French (11 painters including Gauguin and Matisse) and Anglo-Saxons (five), whereas among the film-directors there were more Americans (five) than French people (two). In addition to English and French, other rare languages were heard (Russian, Czech).

6Two points should be considered in terms of the corpus of work produced. It was not an “indigenous” production. The filter of mastering writing, painting, photographic and film techniques meant that Europeans and Americans were seen as intercessors who knew their audience’s expectations much better than their local subject most of the time. Sometimes, their stay was government-funded, directly or indirectly. Gauguin, for example, came on an administrative assignment, Loti as marine candidate. London went to Polynesia in 1907 through an exclusive contract with Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Weekly. Stevenson was funded by New York’s Sun. As a source of inspiration, all of them used stories of 18th century navigators and compilations of missionaries at the beginning of the 19th century in order to strengthen their weak field experiences. Although they sometimes imitated political and scientific theorists of that period (Deschanel, Reclus), it is important to note that, unlike them, and with the exception of Darwin in Tahiti in 1835, or the geographer, Aubert de la Rüe, they were able come face to face with their hypotheses through field experiences. The empirical approach that was attached to the objective movement of that period marks both experimental novels and art and naturalist and symbolic cinema. The average length of stay was short, less than a year and a half for the sixty selected individuals. With the exception of James Norman Hall, not many writers lived in Tahiti. There seemed to be more artists, however, staying for an average of 11 years, while film directors stayed for a shorter time, usually for four months because they often just filmed scenarios and adaptations of literary works produced by others. Finally, there were a few artists who remained in the colony for longer, sometimes until their death, caught between two social groups; on one hand, the colonial society in which they lived, deemed artistically unexciting, and from which actually only one novel adaptation, La grande plantation (The big plantation) by t’Serstevens (1952) was produced, and on the other hand, the indigenous society, in which only a handful remained “immersed”. The “indigenisation” of the aestheticians never seemed to be fulfilled. It was denounced by the “good white colonial society” that spoke of “racism” from the moment when one married a native woman. An almost entirely masculine group of the authors could be observed, with the exception of Elsa Triolet later on. Tahiti will never have its own Alexandra David-Néel.

7A parallel must be drawn between the short lengths of stay and the dominant literary genre, except art. The characteristic literary approach, when it went beyond the impressions of travel, was confined to a fictional story, the most remarkable example being The marriage of Loti. From the end of the 19th century, the angles of approach increased, with ethnographic naturalistic novels, illustrated by Les Immémoriaux by Segalen, of colonial ways of life, La grande plantation by t’Serstevens, and pictorial impressionism by Gauguin. Film production also showed interest in Tahiti on two levels: exoticism (A Tale of old Tahiti by Mélies (1913) or Tabou by Murnau and Flaherty (1928)), which sought to illustrate ancient Polynesia, and that of the adventure film whose only theme was the story, Bounty piracy, that Lloyd focused on in 1936, and later MGM in 1960, based on the novel, Mutiny on the Bounty by Hall and Nordhoff published in Boston in 1932.

8Among all formal varieties, the underlying leitmotiv of any work while being its source of inspiration was also the recurrent theme of the Lost Paradise that was, of course, portrayed in different ways. Tahiti would only present a shadow of the paradise destroyed by colonisation. It is sad that the “initial” artists suggested going further, by going deep into the Tahitian soul or the most remote islands. Finding parcels of this well-preserved paradise in contact with its native men and women, having survived the “colonial” fall, far away from the colonial capital – “Papeete is unquestionably sad” (Adams, Letters, p. 251) – on the fringes of “civilisation”, became the main “documentary” objective of those who were engaged in the search for authenticity. This “peripheral”, even somewhat marginal, positioning was interpreted as being a preferential observation that gradually grew to become the “artificial” capital focusing on colonists as well as the indigenous groups (those protected from colonisation were in the districts and islands). Thus, invariably, each artist had to go through an initiation phase, during which they were invited to stay in a district by the district leader (such as Adams and Stevenson), where one could stay several weeks. As of the 1920s, the frequent comings of tourists somewhat dried up the inhabitants’ “natural hospitality. People rented a fare or a room in someone’s house, following Gauguin’s example, (as did Matisse, Fletcher and Simenon, who remained a city dweller); otherwise the boat was the only option (Gerbault).

9The artist’s travels are thus characterised by an esoteric initiation. Writers and painters were convinced they were witnessing a dying populations and disappearing traditions. Furthermore, it was a sort of “emotional journey” going from the wonders of discovery to disappointment in one’s love for the paradise to which they were devoted. These journeys, which were related to in writing, was not far away from the superficial exoticism represented in travel books, recounting the stages of arrival and the acclimatisation process, before being immersed into one’s surroundings. We can finally trace the chronological outline of earlier descriptions from navigators and explorers of Tahiti, proving that the approach remained exogenous.

10Two schools of thought to explain the situation are based on the nationality of the artist, a fundamental criterion in this period of imperialism, namely Anglo-Saxon artist-writers and French-speaking artists. The Anglo-Saxons, (Melville, Stevenson, Adams, London, Andrews, O’Brian, and Fletcher), continued to speak out against colonialism, which came purely from the French, systematically denouncing what would by right, be petty, ridiculous and “unnatural”. Thus, Stevenson, who notes that English “can already be considered as the language of the Pacific”, observes that “the children (of Tahiti) have many difficulties or are reluctant to learn French”. (Stevenson, pp. 21-22). Adams was disturbed by the mixed-race that characterised the French colony “that is everywhere. It gives a sickly brownish-white or dirty-white tint, which is reminiscent of weakness, sickness and a combination of the least respectable qualities inherited from both sides” (Adams, Letters, p. 250).

11Conversely, French authors who were hostile to the colonial milieu, however, recognised a quality in it, that of having combined “good French taste”, for the search of pleasures, with the Maohis” receptiveness for these types of activities. According to Segalen in his Essay on Exoticism (p. 52) and other authors, enthusiasm for “colonial” literature was somewhat inspiring insofar that it attracts the interest and arrival of artists.

  • 1 Loti, in The marriage of Loti describes Tahiti as a kind of vacuum, in which the Tupapau (ghosts) (...)

12In conclusion to this brief overview, the island of Tahiti described, depicted, filmed, produced and put into action during the colonial period was cut off from its ethno-sociological reality to a great extent. In pervasive impressionism, especially travel impressions, there is little dialogue with the indigenous men and women who, for Loti, are now only shadows of themselves as he awaits their imminent and inevitable disappearance1. Segalen, an outstanding author of an ethnographic novel, also felt obliged to warn potential travellers who would venture out to Polynesia to produce aesthetically pleasing work. This was, as he wrote in his Diary from the Islands, “a lovely Eden, accommodating the joys of the country and not insisting on the impossible and extinguished beauties”. This “realistic” warning nevertheless constructed an “imperialistic” representation in the Western thinking that had participated in colonisation at that time, with the media acting as a intermediary. Certain settlers, such as Fletcher, in their memoirs, said that they came to Polynesia after reading about it. The same artistic corpus stimulated the arrival of tourists at the end of the colonial period.

13In other words, and although it denies and denounces the principle, aesthetic work is rooted in the colonial project, both in its prejudices and superficial approach towards the indigenous people, not to mention the effect it has on strengthening colonisation, nor even the continuation of the post-colonial process through tourism.


1 Loti, in The marriage of Loti describes Tahiti as a kind of vacuum, in which the Tupapau (ghosts) as well as the survivors of the colonial shock were living. Similar to his contemporaries, he believes that the Maori people, who are supposedly only shadows of their former selves, are destined to disappear. This book also has the following subtitle, The palm tree will grow, the coral will spread. But man will perish (an old Polynesian saying).

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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