Monday, December 10, 2007

Why This Man Is Not Smiling

Paul Gauguin left behind him many things from his days in the Marquesas Islands: tales of a mythic return to a more primitive state, equally mythic tales of his licentious ways in the hut he named La Maison du Jouir (“The House of Pleasure” in French), and a legacy of art that still resonates today. A recent archaeological search of La Maison du Jouir’s well recently found another thing Gauguin left behind—his teeth.

When archaeologists discovered the well behind Gauguin’s hut, they found liquor bottles and perfume bottles, undoubtedly part of Paul’s arsenal of seduction of the local ladies. (The halo in the Self-Portrait with Halo from 1889, shown above, is sarcastic, to say the least.) Among the remains, they also found four very rotted teeth. The local islanders didn’t eat sugar back then, leading the investigators to conclude that they are Gauguin’s, which he must have saved for some reason. After Gauguin’s death in 1903, those teeth, along with all of Gauguin’s other personal effects, were tossed into the well.

Dentistry in Gauguin’s day was pretty hit or miss (more miss in his case). An open mouth in a photographic or painted portrait was considered impolite, a convention that doesn’t change until the early twentieth century and the photographic innovation of the candid snapshot. Nevertheless, this revelation puts a whole new imaginative spin on all those paintings by Gauguin of the lovely island ladies and the tales of his amorous nights with the locals. Faced with a jaw full of rotting choppers, the island women needed plenty of alcohol and perfume to put the “pleasure” in “The House of Pleasure.” The local government built a replica of La Maison du Jouir in 2003 as part of a Gauguin museum, making it even easier to picture the artist wooing his models with spirits and scents.

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