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In the 15th century, Botticelli painted her arriving there in the work known as The Birth of Venus, floating over the green sea on a scallop shell, the air heady with pink blossoms, the sea warmly sensual, the island wooded and green.


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Leonardo da Vinci imagined the island of love more disturbingly. It was a place where ships were shattered as sailors feasted their eyes on the beauty of Venus. They have good reason to be obsessed with this landscape of sensual delight: How many ships have foundered there!

Brian B. Kelly

Watteau synthesises and restates the myth of Cythera in his great history painting. He expresses the conjunction of landscape and desire perfectly in the yielding softness of his painted space.


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When you look at the figures, they are firmly drawn, almost hatched like Hogarth etchings, but the world they inhabit is all hints. In April , the explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville discovered what he believed to be a living, real version of the isle of Venus: Bougainville was not the first European to land on Tahiti: But it was the Frenchman who took imaginative possession of the island and its people.

This place was paradise on earth, he reported. He named it New Cythera. Sailors' stories of uninhibited Tahitian women mingled with the myth of Cythera to create a paradise of the mind.

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Denis Diderot, champion of reason and enlightenment, wrote in a Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville, in which he portrays Tahiti as a utopia of libertarian sexuality. For Diderot, the Tahitians, free from Christian superstition, are able to take rational, healthy pleasure in one another's bodies. Far from driving them mad, or turning them into pox-ridden imbeciles, sex makes them happy. Pagan love was the Enlightenment's favourite fantasy.

Watteau's Pilgrimage to Cythera stands near the beginning of this rococo revolution.

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Tahiti was a place the Enlightenment would have had to invent if it had not existed - and the Enlightenment did invent this place as an exotic corner of the European imagination, as opposed to somewhere real people lived. It was a libertine paradise where love was flower-trimmed and natural: Don Giovanni with a happy ending, Justine without the pain. The reality of 18th-century sexual freedom was brothels, pox, foundlings.

Tahiti or New Cythera was a much lovelier image, a fantasy the greatest intellectuals could share with the common British sailors who, in , miserable to have to sail away after six months on the island, cast adrift their captain, William Bligh, and turned the Bounty back to Tahiti and love. Watteau had painted the fantasy of Cythera; within years of the first European trespass, artists were portraying New Cythera.

Brian B. Kelly (Author of Tropic Of Paradise, A Tahitian Love Story)

William Hodges sailed with Captain James Cook on his second Pacific voyage, as official artist of the Resolution, arriving at Tahiti in August - just six years after the first European saw it. He was sent there as a highly regarded artist, trained by the classical landscape painter Richard Wilson. The paintings Hodges made throughout the Pacific and, later, in India can be seen in William Hodges In Tahiti, like everyone else, he found paradise. It was not unblemished.

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Cook visited when Tahiti was at war with neighbouring Moorea, and Hodges realistically painted massed war canoes heading out to sea. But this documentary painting contrasts with his significantly titled Tahiti Revisited, painted in England in and synthesising his memories of the island in a grandly conceived landscape, much as Richard Wilson painted scenes in Italy.

Tahiti Revisited is the first painting to locate paradise in the real landscape of this Polynesian island. Mountains rise ruggedly, caught in a golden light; tall, swaying trees shade a bubbling inlet, where people bathe naked. One lies face upward in the water, while friends dry themselves next to a Polynesian sacred stone carving, a tiki.

Hodges's accurate - or at least recognisable - depiction of a tiki should make us think twice about automatically dismissing his image as a European colonial wet dream.

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Tahiti was always stranger than that. Like so many iconic artists, Gauguin, underappreciated in life, became celebrated in death.

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Vincent Cassel as the famed artist in the movie "Gauguin: In French and Polynesian with English subtitles. Movie news, screening invitations and reviews from the world of independent film and beyond.


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