Gauguin’s “The Spirit of the Dead Watching”

Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching” (1892)

The spirit in this painting reminds me of some of Rufino Tamayo’s human creatures. Here’s a large white eye and white lips etched into a dark face. The body is a hooded, cowl shape. We’re not sure exactly what this thing is, but it has an anthropomorphic nature. Yet, it’s not a person. It’s more of an entity, a dead spirit come back to haunt the living or perhaps to warn them. We cannot see all of its parts, can’t tell whether it’s male or female. Underneath the robe, it might even be an insect.

The spirit leans against the bed with a brown hand ominously touching the sheets. The spirit has been reduced to essentials while the beautiful young girl lying on the pale yellow bedding is definitely whole, alive, and naked. Her skin tones portray her as pulsing with life. Her workings are complex while those of the spirit seem somehow simple. We don’t know if the young woman can see the spirit or whether she simply senses its presence and is perhaps frightened by something she cannot actually see.

The story, as related by Gauguin, is that returning one evening he found his 14-year-old Tahitian wife Tehura lying face down on the bed terrified. The room itself, this confined space, becomes a portal. The night offers itself as a place where the boundaries between the physical world and the spirit’s world can be breached. The girl seems about to slip from her bed. The plane of her repose tilts forward as if to dump her out of the picture frame. It seems that, momentarily, she could fall from this frozen, painted moment either onto the floor or into some abyss where death awaits her. The spirit bides its time. In this way, I see this as a painting about inevitability—about that eventuality—presaging the thing that must transpire. Whether the young woman is aware of the threat, I am aware of it as I view the painting. While the young girl represents the known and solid physical world, the death figurine (and it might be seen as a statue) merely symbolizes what is not known.

A red pillow, offered almost centrally in the painting, brings a sense of carnality, the sense of flesh and blood. The young woman is captured sliding into and through time. The death figure lurks in readiness to claim the flesh that is its due. Three yellow shapes above the girl lighten the darkened room. These blurred swatches of energy suggest that there might be something going on here. Are these lights suggestive of some benevolent presence? I want to press on through the canvas to find out, but the surface doesn’t yield. This painting merges the corporeal with the non-corporeal. It does take me somewhere but it doesn’t take me all the way there. It leaves me on this side of the portal. I fall short. The image can’t yield any kind of complete knowledge about either reality or death.

And that’s because my knowledge falls short. Like the painter himself, I can conceive of death as an anthropomorphic figure, but beyond that symbol is a reality I can’t comprehend, a change that will require a completely different set of faculties, a place where my body life will be extinguished or yield to another larger being than myself.