National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil) Paul Gauguin (artist)
French, 1848 - 1903
Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil), 1892
oil on canvas
overall: 91.7 x 68.5 cm (36 1/8 x 26 15/16 in.) framed: 116.8 x 94 x 10.1 cm (46 x 37 x 4 in.)
Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman
On View
From the Tour: Paul Gauguin
Object 5 of 8

It is unlikely that anyone who saw this painting when it was exhibited in Paris in 1893 would have understood the Tahitian legend Gauguin inscribed on it. Its symbolism remains complex. The masked kneeling figure is the varua ino of the title, a malevolent spirit who materializes as strange and frightening humanoid forms. The standing woman, on the other hand, is associated through her gestures evoking modesty and shame with western images of Eve after the fall. When Gauguin traveled to Polynesia, he took with him a collection of photographs—of Renaissance paintings, the Parthenon, the Buddhist temple of Borobudur—and often incorporated these images in his Tahitian painting.

Yet this is not simply a western theme in Polynesian guise. Among the women of Tahiti, Gauguin discovered profound spiritual forces at work. In this Polynesian Eve, he envisioned a channel through which spiritual energy entered the everyday world. Probably she represented knowledge of good and evil, of life and human morality—part of Gauguin's long fascination with life and death. At the upper right, under the curiously serpentine red and green face, Gauguin inserts himself into the scene with the depiction of a sketchy hand, an emblem he used also in self-portraits.

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