Director, Glenn Lowry: In 1891, Paul Gauguin traveled to Tahiti, where he lived for three years.
Curator, Anne Umland: Although he expected to find an idyllic utopian paradise in fact he found the opposite. Poverty was rampant, colonialism had not been kind, it was far from a paradise, but nonetheless he managed to create these very paradisiacal images about Polynesian culture, its inhabitants, its myths.
According to the myth or legend upon which this picture is based, Hina, the Moon—the female figure in the foreground—is beseeching Fatou, the Earth, the male figure in the background, to grant mankind eternal life.
This picture doesnt really cohere in a unified space. The female figure is flattened, up close. And then in the distance is this more three-dimensionally sculpted, brooding dark males face and upper torso. But there is no middle ground that you feel, as though you, the viewer, could traverse with your eye. And part of that undoubtedly has to do with Gauguin's keen interest in stylized Egyptian art, in the flattening of figures and the hieratic poses. At the same time, Gauguin was interested in creating an art of communication, of decoration.
It's interesting to me that if you look closely at this work it is in fact a painting that was done on burlap. Gauguin liked using supports that had this very textured weave that brought with it the connotations of the roughness of a wall or a fresco of an art that could tell stories.
The Moon and the Earth is Gauguin's depiction of an ancient Polynesian myth, in which Hina, the female spirit of the Moon, implores Fatou, the male spirit of the Earth, to grant humans eternal life. It is a request Fatou resolutely denies. Gauguin's depiction of Hina and Fatou—marked by a great disparity in the figure's size, scale, and coloration—seems to reflect their ancient quarrel. In the foreground, Hinas nude figure is in full view, while Fatou, rendered from the chest up, looms larger than life in the background. But there is no middle ground; the distance between them appears impassable.