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Paul Gauguin Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary)
Paul Gauguin's 1891 canvas Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) was the artist's first major canvas completed following his move to the Polynesian island of Tahiti. Later, Gauguin's Tahiti period would be remembered for his exploration of local religious customs but here the artist projects the iconography of Catholic belief onto the unsuspecting islanders. Yet despite the title and the appearance of a Virgin and Child, the theme appears looser than one might expect. Instead, Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) is a study of religious devotion. Prominently housed in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Gauguin's painting depicts three Tahitian women immersed in the lush greenery of Polynesia: the woman in the foreground is characterised as Mary, who carries her son on the shoulder, Jesus, as their sacredness is shown by the two hovering halos. Behind them one can find two women at worship, behind which is a stunning still life arrangement with the then-exotic banana fruit.
In this canvas Gauguin reveals a typical trait of his painting: syncretism, or the union of two very different cultures, in this case the Christian religion with the worldview of the exotic. The resulting impression is a representation of natural human spirituality. The work is also a manifestation of the implicit criticism that Gauguin held towards the Western world, one which had ruined and tainted a world so pure, or what the artist called "a paradise on earth." Indeed, the background of the painting is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, a feature which marks the continuity between Gauguin's last large European work and his first large Tahitian canvas.
Living alone in Mataiea on the island of Tahiti, Gauguin's only link to his native France was a humble Catholic school near his home. As the artist battled against loneliness, his home was almost destroyed by rain and wind. Coming to his aid, his Tahitian neighbours helped him with advice on renovating his home and with tips to guard against solitude. Gauguin's art of this period is fascinating purely for the fact that one can witness a great mind grasping at straws. Attempting at once to universalise and celebrate the natives, the artist reflects far more about his own experience of expatriate life than about the global qualities of human spirituality. A stunning product from an artist abroad, Gauguin's Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) reminds us that however far you travel you can never leave yourself at home.
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