Artistic words: Chang on Gauguin

Reading Written on Water, a book of essays by Eileen Chang, I came across this evocative description of a Gauguin painting.

There are some paintings I will never be able to forget, but only one of them is famous, Gauguin’s “Nevermore.”  A Hawaiian [Tahitian] woman lies naked on a couch, quietly listening to the conversation of a man and a woman as they walk past her door. The rosy sunset glow of springtime in the background seems to spray skyward like mist, giving a feeling of transcendence to the scene, and yet for this robust woman, who looks about thirty years old, everything is over and done. The woman’s face is coarse, with narrow slitted eyes, and she cups her cheek in her hand, sending her gaze slanting upward in a slyly flirtatious gesture so reminiscent of many a young Shanghainese woman that it strikes us as being quite familiar. Her body is the golden brown of hardwood. The dark brown of the sofa, though, is rendered in a shade more like ancient bronze, and little white flowers are visible on the sofa cover, semitranslucent like mother-of-pearl. Inlaid on this dark bronze background is the atmosphere outside: colored glass, blue sky, red and blue trees, a pair of lovers, a big clumsy bird from a children’s fairy tale perched on a stone railing. Glass, bronze, and wood: these three textures seem to encompass the different worlds that we can touch with our hands, in a way that is as tangible as the woman herself. She must have loved with every fiber of her being and now “Nevermore.” Although she sleeps on a civilized sofa, her head nestled on a ruffled pillow embroidered with lemon-yellow flowers, there is still a primal sadness here. It is nothing like our own society, in which a woman no longer in her prime who wants love but has already lost it will almost certainly be confronted with countless little indignities and grinding difficulties, to the point where her self-respect is torn and shredded. This woman is not prone to the same sedimented sadness, because she retains a sense of clarity and resignation. On her golden brown face, there’s still a trace of an irrelevant smile, as if a mirror had cast a fugitive fragment of the sunlight outside across her face.

Chang is the author of Lust, Caution a superb read, also made into a film by Ang Lee.

And here’s the painting she describes:

Gauguin: Nevermore

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