date published: March 1, 2004

During his eventful and often turbulent life, the groundbreaking French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) wore many hats, from sailor to stockbroker, family man to hedonist, art collector to artist. One could say that not only were his canvases colorful, but so was his very existence. Now fans of his vibrant palette and deeply personal and symbolic imagery can explore some of his greatest works and the stories behind them at the Museum of Fine Arts’ blockbuster new exhibit Gauguin Tahiti.

Organized in conjunction with France’s Reunion des Musees Nationaux and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, this historic exhibit encompasses nearly 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and manuscripts. As the title suggests, the works presented are mostly inspired by Gauguin’s time spent in the South Seas, where he travelled in the later years of his life after becoming disillusioned with contemporary society, attracted by what he perceived as Tahiti’s more primitive, exotic and uncorrupted civilization.

The show is making its only U.S. appearance right here in Boston—and with good reason. The literal and figurative centerpiece of the exhibit is the MFA’s own Where Are We From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897–1898), acknowledged by many critics, and even by the artist himself, as Gauguin’s greatest achievement. It is displayed together with eight other smaller pictures Gauguin painted in the wake of this grand masterpiece, which haven’t been reunited since they were originally displayed in Paris in 1898. Where Are We From? represents the culmination of Gauguin’s ideas about life and art and is fraught with his own complex, personal iconography, as well as his signature patterning and bright, exaggerated hues. Read from left to right, the three main figure groupings represent the rather loaded questions posed by the title, which is particularly poignant due to the fact that Gauguin ingested arsenic in an effort to end his life in the midst of painting his masterpiece.

Of course, these were not the only pieces created during his time in French Polynesia, which he visited twice—first from 1891 to 1893, and then from 1895 until his death. The full range of the latter part of his career is on display here, as well as artifacts and photographs from such locales as Tahiti, New Zealand and Marquesas that spurred him to move to the South Pacific in the first place.
Despite a distaste for the way he felt that French colonialism had tainted an ancient and mysterious culture, he nevertheless became fascinated with the people, and especially the women, of the tropical paradise. His works of this era are characterized by the bright, tropical colors for which he became famous, although the images and hues were as much inspired by his imagination as by what he saw around him.

Besides the historic re-grouping of many of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, several other artifacts of note are on display. One such remarkable object is a journal kept by Gauguin that not only acts as a log of his first journey to that paradise in the Pacific, but also a treatise on the ideas behind his paintings. This manuscript, entitled Noa Noa (1893–1901), has not left France since 1927, when it became part of the collection at the Louvre in Paris. Due to the magic of modern technology, a video display presents viewers with a glimpse at its delicate, carefully preserved pages, and visitors can even purchase a reproduction of the book on CD-ROM in the museum’s gift shop.

Several other pleasant surprises can also be found. Among them are several rough, primitive woodblock prints, many from the MFA’s own collection. There’s also the wooden doorway carvings from Gauguin’s house in the Marquesas Islands—where the artist spent the final years of his life before succumbing to the ravages of alcohol abuse and syphilis in 1903. The decorations were reunited a few years ago after being in separate collections for decades.

And speaking of surprises, the MFA is currently sponsoring a contest for patrons who want to experience the source of Gauguin’s inspiration first-hand. Visitors who fill out an entry form, available in the West Wing lobby, are eligible to win a trip aboard a luxury cruise ship (christened, appropriately enough, the Paul Gauguin) travelling to the islands of the South Seas including, of course, Tahiti.

Whether you are the lucky recipient of that prize or not, however, take solace in the fact that a trip to a faraway land can still be yours—all for the mere price of a ticket to the Gund Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

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