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Ancient and modern art in French Polynesia Gauguin Tahitian Pearls

French Polynesia

Ancient and Modern Polynesian Art

Ancient Polynesian Art

In art as well as in other domains, Eastern Polynesia formed a region apart. Unlike Melanesia, for example, where figures are often abstract and polychrome, Polynesian sculpture is rarely painted and relatively realistic. 

But can we really talk of Polynesian art when it was never art for art's sake ? It had above all a religious or decorative function. The wooden or stone anthropomorphic statuettes called "ti'i" or tiki had a religious significance, whereas articles for useful or ornamental purposes were simply given a decorative design. 

The Marquesans were the most skilled in the decorative arts, for their artisans covered the whole surface of all their creations with complicated designs often inspired by the shape of the human body. It is therefore very surprising that their tapa are never decorated, whereas Tongan and Samoan artists, their inferiors in the other arts, were masters in designing material. 

Petroglyphs are the least well known of the Polynesians' graphic works of art. These carved stones can be seen most frequently in the Society Islands. They represent stylized characters including the costume of the leader of a funeral in Tahiti, or turtles and fish in Bora Bora. 

The famous tiki, the Marquesan name for the "ti'i" of Tahiti, is found in various situations, and those decorating combs or the handles of fans are very finely carved. Those that were a little larger and made of wood were perhaps already used for religious purposes. They are to be found as posts, as individual statuettes averaging 30 cm in height, or as components of canoes. Although we can imagine how some of these were used, (the cleat for example), we still do not know whether these carvings, when they formed part of a canoe, indicated ownership or a representation of the Gods indispensable for voyaging. 

The most coarsely fashioned stone or coral "ti'i" were usually found on the marae or at the boundary of sacred land. In the Austral Islands, where the decorative arts no doubt were most characteristically Polynesian, important articles, usually made of wood, were carved with fine geometric motifs. Human forms, especially on drum bases, are completely original and have nothing in common with the famous tiki, which seems today to be the only symbol of Polynesian art.

Modern Polynesian Art

In order to penetrate the daily life of the Cretan or Pre-Columbian lost civilizations, one merely has to examine the decorations on their pottery. The paintings in the Lascaux grottoes give us a glimpse of the life of the people who inhabited them, what they hunted and how. To an alert-minded expert, a carved bamboo from New Caledonia is a very valuable and amazingly precise graphic memorial. We find, unfolded before our eyes, a series of scenes representing the opening ceremonies of the yam season or various incidents during bonito or harpoon fishing, from the "deck" of a large seagoing canoe.

There is no such thing in Tahiti. Pre-European Tahiti, that is to say Tahiti before 1765, had its own epic poets, learned genealogists, important speakers and expert costumers, but graphic art was unknown and drawing totally ignored.

Apart from a few remnants of engraved animals on stones, the ancient Polynesians have not left us the slightest "picture" which could enlighten us as to their daily life, their ceremonies, their dwellings or the landscapes they were used to seeing, as well as their facial appearance. In Tahiti, there were no pictures, no recumbent figures or headstones over the mortal remains of the great chiefs and there were no enlightened manuscripts or high-warp tapestries either to record the great achievements of the more or less deified ancestors. Here in Tahiti, civilization was oral in nature; a civilization of the spoken rather than of the written word. Thus it is by oral and not by graphic means that the exploits of the heroes and the sensational metamorphoses of the sky-gods are recorded. Furthermore, the monoliths erected on the ancestral marae and not the banners floating from lances or signet rings indicated one's clan connections.

If some sort of maritime cataclysm or a gigantic tsunami had wiped French Polynesia off the face of the earth towards the middle of the eighteenth century, all we would know of this interesting population would be the finding of some archeologists, during their local excavations, such as a few hatchet stones, fish hooks, stone tiki or the remains of a marae.


But after Quiros' and Magellan's great voyages of discovery, journeys round the world were already being organized and more particularly in the Pacific Ocean in order to find this "terra Australis incognita" which seventieth century geographers had placed in the southern hemisphere, so as to counter-balance the northern hemisphere: Asia, Europe and America. From 1768 to 1779, James Cook, during his three voyages, which made him one of the great names in naval history, was successful in this connection and established the location of the main archipelagoes in the Pacific.

The Admiralty gave him instructions to return to England with as much information as possible on the countries he was setting off to explore or discover; hence there were astronomers, hydrographers, or botanists aboard and also recording-artists. Their mission was to compile at each port of call as much graphic documentation as possible in order to compensate for the inevitable imperfections of written reports.

Thus Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges and John Webber successively accompanied Cook on his three voyages as official recording-artists. This trios of very select young artists had received good academic tuition and was better equipped than the qualified scientists to accept the rough conditions

They were asked to return with graphic documentation on the important events of these expeditions and scenes with natives, their costume sand dwellings.

Each one brought back satisfactory documentation, which was used to illustrate the stories published on Cook's three voyages in 1773, 1777 and 1784. The thirty plain or double plates of stops in Tahiti or the Windward Islands of the Society Group are signed by their three names. These were the first pictures that enabled Europe to get an idea of the aspect of the Pacific Islands. The story of Cook's "Voyages" were very widespread, re-edited, translated into French, German or Dutch and were always illustrated with the same endless series of reproductions. They were one of the best sellers of the time...


Their descriptions were identical to Cook's: their cautions landings on the island with peace and understanding in mind, their first encounter with the natives, the Organization of their stops for watering, their bartering, their mutual presents, their journeys around the islands and inland, and particularly the strange shows performed by a different population: all types of feasts, dances, religious ceremonies on the marae, offerings to the dead, nautical exhibitions. They could not believe their eyes and sat down to draw all this on their sketching pads. They rapidly drew, by means of a pencil or a wash-drawing, the essential part of a scene and noted down very carefully a hundred successive "remarks" on the draping of a costume, a ceremonial hair-style, details of a musical instrument or the very precise ones of a hut made out of tropical leaves.

These annotations were used as a basis for more elaborate compositions such as the illustrations of Captain Cook's "Voyages". The artist could not touch these drawings up on the spot, as their time was too precious and limited. Moreover, working on board was totally out of the question due to lack of space.

The drawings which English engravers used for the plates to illustrate the "Voyages" were almost certainly done in the artist's studios, after the exploring expeditions, in peace and quiet.

Should you wish to get an accurate idea of how Oceania seemed to a European artist, it would be necessary to consult archive departments and private collections in order to find these drawings, then publish and study them, as, and this is an important remark, the illustrations of these "Voyages" that have been seen so far have already undergone the interpretation of late eighteenth century London engravers. They were accustomed to the paintings of the Royal Academy as well as Greek or Roman style works of art; Oceania was as unknown to them as China and as difficult to portray as the Moon. A dancer was more like one at Covent Garden; a beautiful garment would look more like those worn at Court and a mortuary bed decorated for parade on a marae would be identical to an accessory for the final scene of Act III. According to an English report and the ideas of that period, the scenes, which were brought back from the South Seas, always had a tendency to be modified.

In spite of the fact that these artists (fellow travelers, companions) had been requested to return with a precise and true description of these exploring expeditions, the final result was always classical in style: Tahiti would look like Greece with a tint of tropical exotics. Perhaps this is the way they actually saw things, but their painting habits and techniques have betrayed them. Tahitian woman with her fallals, fly-swatter and tattoos Will always be painted in an "academic" style, shaped more like a studio model than the Tahitian that she is, with her special and characteristic appearance, gait and posture.

However, we must not take too much notice of these accidental imperfections and must learn to skim over them. Their documentation is extremely valuable to us as what would Tahiti know about its origins were it not for these pictures? Let us, therefore, continue to glance at these magnificent pages, which are the fruits of apposite observation and sagacious efforts. These artists have represented in a very direct manner and as objectively as possible, domestic or ceremonial scenes which are the main core of Tahiti prior to the arrival of Europeans; they sometimes even illustrated word for word such and such a page of the "Voyages". What more could one possibly wish for?

Upon their return to England, and their mission having been accomplished Hodges earned 250 guineas a year for his work in the South Seas - our three artists began to toy with the idea of using their documentation for personal profit and promotion in their artistic careers. One began to see series of engravings and albums full of drawings, which had been colored, using the techniques of that period, such as Views in the South Seas.

But each one of them had the Royal Academy in mind, which dominated all the arts in Great Britain at that time, and wished to be spotted out by experts during the annual exhibitions. Hence one began to see easel paintings of classical Tahitian landscapes.


Hodges is probably the best known of all these artists. Several of his Tahitian oil paintings are hanging at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. They had been ordered by the British Admiralty. We find ourselves feeling as if we are being picked up and transported to various parts of the island, when in front of these pictures: Tautira, Pari and Matavai. One is reminded of some of Claude le Lorrain's canvas paintings. Whereas Lorrain's pictures evoked a sort of Golden Age in light effects, Hodges introduces us to what will soon be known as a "South Seas mirage".

One of his most amazing pictures is a view, which is not unfamiliar to us of the coast looking inland. The setting is quite classical. A river in which one feels like bathing meanders across a fragment of plain lying between two deep valleys. It is therefore not surprising to discover in the foreground a few water nymphs, seemingly Tahitian and tattooed of course but treated as academic subjects. The right hand side is filled in by sculptures undoubtedly representing tiki. To its center, a group of trees screens a background of high mountains. The artist has taken a slight liberty towards the local topography. The "peaks" of the peninsula are nowhere near as haughty and grandiose, but the artist had to exaggerate them in order to make his landscape lighter and more luminous as well as giving it an almost unreal effect. The peacefulness of this Tahitian landscape of the "Golden Age" is only interrupted by three high coconut trunks, which add an idealistic touch to the whole picture.

But among Hodges' paintings, the only one worthy of appearing in a Tahitian anthology would be the one of Cook's anchored frigates at the bottom of Matavai Bay. The foreground is animated by the occupiers of all sorts of maneuvering canoes. A fading light effect is obtained in the background by the curve-like movement of hills sloping towards the sea. This is a sort of retrospective study, the picture was painted in England, of the bewitching skies and Tahitian atmosphere; a very beautiful painting indeed.

Before we leave these first Tahitian painters, let us not forget to mention John Webber who, besides his remarkable illustrations of "Cook's third Voyage" also painted a portrait of "Poedooa, the Orce's daughter, Chief of Raiatea". There is nothing typical about this first painting by a European painter of a Polynesian woman standing with calm and serene dignity, her head bent slightly forward in spite of her bare chest, the white tapa wrapped round her, the tiare flower adorning her hair hanging loose over her shoulders, her tattoos and the fan she is holding in her right hand, her arm held in a graceful manner, just like a dancer. An anthropologist could easily mistake her for an Italian or a Maltese woman. Yet this is how Webber pictured Poedooa and placed a bantering and at the same time enigmatic, ironical and mysterious smiles on her classical face. Therefore, this young princess about to die in the prime of her life, is, so to speak, our Mona Lisa!


Official French painters took over from British artists, much to Tahiti's artistic satisfaction. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, several successful maritime exploring expeditions were organized for scientific purposes and for glory, as Louis-Philippe's policy was one of expansion, which led France not only to Caledonia but also to the Marquesas and to Tahiti.

The Navy was now using more comfortable ships than those in Cook's days, thus making it easier to welcome "artists" in better conditions. Within half a century, drawing techniques had improved and watercolor painting had become an art in itself; plate cameras were frequently being used and artists began to produce superb color lithography, inserted in Albums recording the Voyages.

Duperrey traveled on the "Coquille" to the Gambier Islands and Tahiti in 1822. He had on board a man under the name of Lejeune who left a series of amusing color pictures of Papeete in those days and kept them in an "Album", now at the Navy Headquarters in Vincennes. They are practically all unpublished, unfortunately, as they bear strange and picturesque annotations.

Lejeune was somewhat of an amateur. Dumont d'Urville's exploring expedition was a very carefully planned one: he sailed through French Polynesia in August and September 1838 during a voyage on the "Astrolabe" and the "Zelée". On board were three qualified artists: the ensign Marescot, who died in 1839, and had gathered a considerable amount of graphic documentation, Ernest Goupil, the painter, who became Dumont d'Urville's official recording artist and who also died, at the age of twenty-six, in January 1840 of dysentery, in Tasmania. The third artist was Louis Lebreton, a navy and watercolor painter; he was given the task of gathering and preparing the voyage's iconography. The "Pictorial Atlas" appeared in two volumes, in 1846. It was a magnificent iconographic document, such as one might be able to compile with important official credits and it bears witness of the expedition leader's stubbornness as well as the lithographers' talent and more particularly, the virtuosity and artistic talent of the artists themselves. As far as the French section of the South Seas is concerned, this "Atlas" consists of thirty-one plates : thirteen of Nuku Hiva, eleven of the Gambier Islands and eight of Tahiti.

You occasionally find some of this lithography, which has been extracted, from "Atlases" "ruined" by vandals. But you must be able to peruse the whole Atlas at leisure and study it closely to be affected by the charm and authentic beauty of these pictures of the past. A whole era is then unraveled before our eyes: sailing in the South Seas, official visits, recently converted notable savages, their chiefs and ministers, their churches and marae, the South Seas in the days of Pritchard and Queen Pomare.

Some of Lebreton's work in the South Seas is mentioned in the catalogues of Parisian "Exhibitions", in the 1840's. Heaven knows whatever happened to them!

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We have included French Polynesia in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Kontiki Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage. Another option is to create your own package to French Polynesia by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, flights and excursions on the islands.

For a legal wedding the legal requires in French Polynesia that you remain at least 30 days in French Polynesia before the marriage. In practice this means you may only have a ceremonial wedding in French Polynesia (see also Tiki Village).

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