L’Esprit veille / Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit
Traced monotype in black and brown revised, some brown watercolour, on thin vellum
Inv. No. 65310
63.8 × 51.2 cm
The female figure of exotic appearance, shown by Paul Gauguin in an extreme close-up view and a full frontal pose, has the appearance of an idol. In the background the artist has drawn a simple profile which, in contrast to the clearly formulated physicality of the native woman, appears to be floating and merely imagined. Rendered in stylized linearity and light shades of colour, it resembles a ghostly hallucination. This combination of nature and spirit, the visible and the visionary, is also used by Gauguin in other contexts in his paintings, prints and drawings.
Gauguin sent L’Esprit veille and a number of other monotypes from Tahiti to his dealer Ambroise Vollard in Paris in the spring of 1900. The artist had been living in the South Seas since 1895, having returned to the islands again after his initial stay there in 1891–1893. Away from civilization and the hectic artistic life of his homeland, his pictorial world reflects the alien culture and, in an idealized form, the life of the inhabitants. While as a person Gauguin put into practice his exciting notion of the »wild« artist, his monotypes and paintings found few purchasers during his lifetime and on the whole met with incomprehension. His unusual work did, however, create an awareness of primitivism which would prove to be of trailblazing importance for the generation of artists that followed.
The monotype was a medium that lent itself well to the disturbing subject of L’Esprit veille. The experimental opportunities offered by this artistic process are complex and often largely impossible to reconstruct. In this instance Gauguin had begun by laying the paper, which was of a particularly large size, wrong side up on two joined sheets that were completely covered in black paint. Over initial sketchings in pencil, he used blue crayon and pencils of varying hardness to draw the outlines and fill in some areas with hatching. He achieved painterly effects using watercolour and presumably also solvents. Following completion of the monotype process used to produce this drawn image, the artist added a few final touches in brown watercolour.
The monotype technique, which had interested Gauguin since 1894, had been used by Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, though in a different way, from the end of the 1870s onward. As a process for making a mirror-image copy or, as seen here, a unique print, the monotype bears a close relationship to graphic printing methods, but because of its immediacy it is best classified as a form of drawing. Gauguin himself, like Degas, always referred to his monotypes as »dessins«.