In 1892, Paul Gauguin completed a unique oil on burlap painting titled Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau). This famous artwork depicts a nude Tahitian girl who is being haunted by the Polynesian spirit of the dead called Tupapaú. The title of the painting can refer to either the girl imagining the ghost or vice versa. The girl in this classic artistic masterpiece was Teha’amana, Gauguin’s young lover and ‘native-wife.’
Gauguin was known for trying to be enigmatic, as evident in this canvas. He combined ordinary elements with suggestions of extraordinary ones, creating an open interpretation and leaving room for debate. The fear expressed in Teha’amana’s face is based on her looking at Gauguin in terror during a real-life event.
The Spirit of the Dead Watching illustrates Gauguin’s fascination with his chosen subject and highlights his desire to merge familiar objects with surreal ones. While intended to contain several complex symbologies, it remains challenging and hard to understand without specific knowledge into Gauguin’s passion for tribal or indigenous art forms.