What did Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Jacques Brel (1929-78) have in common?
At first glance it would appear that there was little, if anything. Paul Gauguin was a French painter, better known after his death, and Jacques Brel, a Belgian, more famous in his lifetime, in a different era, for his songs and his film roles.
It was in 1971, while staying in the Hawaiian Islands, that I first became interested in Paul Gauguin. I had been reading two collections of short stories of Somerset Maughan – ‘The Trembling of a leaf’ and ‘Tales of the South Pacific’, when I came across Maughan’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence´, a novel loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin, who spent much of his later life in Tahiti, in the South Pacific. I wanted to experience Tahiti.
So I moved on to Papee’te and I was not disappointed in what I found – the climate, the friendly and curious people, swimming with the colourful fish in the lagoon, the tropical scenery, the massive mountain core. To me it seemed idyllic.
But although Gauguin had lived and painted in Tahiti, I found that he was not buried there, but on the nearby Atuona, in the Marquesas Islands.
Some years later I once more stopped off in Pape’ete, on my way to Panama, but I never made it to Atouna.
Paul Gauguin painted Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When will you marry) in 1892, not long after he moved to Tahiti. In 2015 the painting sold for nearly 300 million dollars, at that time the most that had ever been paid for a work of art.
In 1974 I attended a concert of Rod McKuen at the recently-opened Sydney Opera House. I had a cassette of McKuen´s songs and often played them as I went to sleep. There was something in his gravelly voice, his poems and the music that appealed to me. And McKuen explained that many of his songs were translations from lyrics of his close friend, Jacques Brel, such as ´If you go away (Ne me quitte pas)’ and ‘Seasons in the sun – (Le Moribond)’. Many years later a Belgian friend gave me a collection of Jacque Brel’s songs.
Rod McKuen, as I remember him
Jacque Brel died in 1978, near Paris, soon after having returned to France for medical treatment. Knowing that he was terminally ill, he had spent his last few years sailing in the South Pacific and had settled in the Marquesas Islands. He was buried in the graveyard of Atuona, a few metres from the grave of Paul Gauguin.
Sometimes the world can seem quite small…