Paul Gauguin & Jacques Brel

The Marquesas are closely associated with painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and singer-songwriter Jacques Brel (1929–78). Both were won over by the archipelago’s powerful landscapes, serenity and distance from civilisation, and both chose to live out their lives on Hiva Oa. They rest in the Calvaire Cemetery, which has become something of a pilgrimage site for their devotees.

The evocative paintings of Paul Gauguin are largely responsible for Polynesia’s enduring reputation as a paradise lost. Constantly in search of an escape, the artist first voyaged to Brittany, Martinique and Provence, but these places didn't appease his tormented mind. In Mataiea on Tahiti, where the Musée Gauguin now stands, he concentrated on capturing images of daily life and, in 1892 and 1893, experienced an intensely productive period. Exuberant settings and flamboyant colours, with yellows, reds and blues predominating, increasingly pervaded the artist’s painting.

Impoverished, Gauguin sailed back to France in 1893 but set off for the South Seas once again in 1895. His most powerful compositions date from this second and final stay in Polynesia, which was marked by illness and distress. After a failed suicide attempt, Gauguin took refuge on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he defended the inhabitants against the colonial administration and the all-powerful Catholic Church. Although weakened, he did not stop writing, drawing, sculpting and painting, and it was during this period that he produced one of his most beautiful nudes, Barbaric Tales (1902). Gauguin died in May 1903.

Belgian-born singer (and a legend in France and in Belgium) Jacques Brel was as iconoclastic as Gauguin and he derided the flaws of society in his powerful songs, including the poignant ‘Dans le Port d’Amsterdam’ and ‘Les Marquises’. In an attempt to escape media pressure, he set out to sail around the world on the Askoy II, his private ketch, accompanied by his female companion, Madly, who was from Guadeloupe. In November 1975 they arrived at Atuona. In 1976, Brel and Madly set up a small home on the hillside above the village and became involved in village life. Brel equipped himself with Jojo, a Beechcraft airplane, and performed medical air evacuations to Pape’ete from time to time. Jacques Brel died of cancer in October 1978 at the age of 48. His tomb is near Gauguin's.