Nevermore was painted two years after Gauguin had returned to Tahiti for the second and last time. He already had late stage syphillis, was injecting morphine and his leg had been badly smashed up in a fight. The ‘primitive’ was extremely important to Gauguin who viewed it as a route back to the centre of art. Later that year he tried to commit suicide, many of the paintings from that period have death and sadness as central themes.
Nevermore has a particularly poignant sense to it. A baby girl born to his ‘vahine’, Pau’ura, died immediately before he painted this picture. Pau’ura was with Gauguin for 6 years and was his muse/model for many of his most important paintings. The sombre and melancholic flavour to Nevermore should not be a surprise.
The painting is of a young woman lying on a bed, behind her is a bed board and panels with arabesques on them. A dark bird looks over the woman and through a window there is the sky, clouds and two figures talking. The woman is naked and suffused with sadness and melancholy. The picture is also clearly an extension of a previous painting, Mana'o tupapa'u.
Gauguin wanted painting to be seen in the same artistic light as literature and music, a creation of imagination, thought and process, rather than simply likeness.
The literary side of Nevermore is a commentary in sensuality, the role of women in society, sadness, loss, primitive spirits and public judgement. There is a strong set of contrasts in the content of the image, spirit v woman, sadness v sensual/sexual, dream v awakened, animal versus artistic. It contains the juxtaposition of a girl, sad at recent loss and the spirit of the devil. The viewer is invited to take these in as a whole. He alludes to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, in the name Nevermore, the dark bird and the process behind the creation of the image. However, Gauguin saw the bird as of the devil. The picture also seems to be influenced by Manet’s Olympia, which he carried a copy of.
The musical side of the painting is based around sensitive and rythmic use of colour and composition. The dream quality is created with colours that are largely harmoniously blueish and fluid drawing that extends across the whole image. The main colour contrast is between an earthy green and a magenta, although both are relatively unsaturated. There are warmer parts to these, almost orangeish. Large areas of dull and harmonious colours, with limited tonal character contrast against much smaller areas of intense yellow, red and blue in a triangle pattern across the image.
Nevermore is relatively flat, especially for that time. Gauguin outlined his figures in black, which was to become ‘modern’ , a flattening device. The window in the background is a cool blue, receding in the image. The warmth of the colours in the figure and strong contrasts of tone and colour around the figure, bring it forward in the image and the front edge of the bed is a darker dark, bringing it even further forward. Gauguin has also used tonal shifts to model the form of the body, which helps to place it in space.
The painting is strongly constructed but done in a way that remains alive and energetic. The composition is laid out in a series of horizontals and verticals, connecting various parts of the image to create a whole. The horizontals of the back and front of the bed support horizontals in the figure; the left leg shin, the top of the right leg calf, the bottom of the left arm forearm, the lower line of the torso/stomach. The back of the bed also creates a strong horizontal that extends across the picture through the girl’s pubic cleft and a horizontal between her eyes. The grid is completed with strong verticals in the back ground linking up with parts of the figure; the bottom of both feet, the line of the pubic hair, the line of the knuckles on the hands and wrist beneath the face.
The grid structure is broken up by strong diagonals; the upper line of the torso extends from the line of the right calf, lower part. The line from the top of the feet to the top of the hip continues up the head board, while the line from the top of the head, shoulders and hips extends across the top of two patterns in the back ground, far left.
Despite the constructed nature of the picture, it is not rigid, it has a great deal of life, partly because of the contrast between straight lines and curved ones. The curves of the figure are echoed and even extended in strongly curving motifs in the back ground panels and bed board. There is also a sense of ‘rightness’ and observation about much of the drawing in the figure, as well as the relative light between the interior and the exterior. The panels in the picture echo those that we know he had in his studio.
I have ended up liking and appreciating this painting because it is a complex image that successfully balances many opposing elements in both the formal aspects of the image as well as the subject.