|La Orana MariaSource: Metropolitan Museum of Art|
Today, I want to talk about my favorite Gauguin painting: La Orana Maria (Hail Mary).In this piece, Gauguin reimagines traditional European imaginary of the Madonna and Child. Here, a Tahitian woman represents the Virgin Mary and a toddler perched on her shoulder represents the Christ Child. Gauguin described it as “an angel with yellow wings reveals Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women, nudes dressed in pareus, a sort of cotton cloth printed with flowers that can be draped from the waist. Very somber, mountainous background and flowering trees . . . a dark violet path and an emerald green foreground, with bananas on the left. I"m rather happy with it."To my knowledge, Gauguin was not a particularly religious person, but he was certainly interested in spiritual experience, as can be seen in his famous painting Vision after the Sermon. La Orana Maria continues in this vein, using the contrast of the Tahitian setting and the European theme to explore the subject matter. Although, La Orana Maria is clearly a departure from other depictions of the Madonna and Child, it is also unusual in other ways. Mary, who is usually depicted in a seated position, is standing. The child on her shoulder is turning away from the viewer, his face barely visible. The angel mentioned in Gauguin’s description is also facing away and almost hidden in the background, obscured by a tree. These compositional choices create a scene that feels much more natural and conveys a sense of movement and energy. However, Gauguin does employee symbolic language in this painting. The Madonna is a monumental form, towering over the other figures in the painting out of all proportion. This emphasizes her importance in the image, a trope that’s common in cultures around the world. Several bunches of bananas dominate the bottom left corner, a symbol of abundance or maybe even fertility. Gauguin considered Tahiti to be a kind of paradise, a land untouched by the influence of the industrial revolution in which people were free to be more “natural.” Gauguin borrows the lush Tahitian landscape to interpose this idealized image on his Madonna. Disclaimer: I’m not an art historian or an expert on this topic.
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The above is my opinion, based on my interpretation of my foreknowledge of art and history. If I’ve done any additional research, I’ll note it above.