"Slumped Figures with Sterno”

Paul Gagon

Giving up a tiresome career as a stockbroker, Gagon abandoned his family and went off to live in Tahiti, where he recorded the collapse of the native population in the face of encroaching western civilization. His first paintings show the happy, carefree, naked Polynesian people at work and play on the glorious sun-washed beaches of this island paradise. Later pictures show the arrival of missionaries and social workers, as the faces become sadder and the bodies are increasingly shown wrapped in the bright imported cotton cloths that do nothing to hide the misery of their wearers. The nubile young girls of the early paintings are gradually replaced by overweight gloomy, disease-ridden women standing on welfare lines or, as in this case, attempting to drown their sorrows by drinking cheap intoxicants, which they strained through breadfruit to make palatable.

 

Gagon himself shared the fate of his subjects, gradually reduced to selling pictures of topless wahines on velvet to American tourists and spending his nights swigging turpentine on the littered beaches of Papeete. He died of what the French health administrator described as "heartbreak, complicated by cadmium poisoning and the worst case of clap this department has ever recorded."

 

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