Back to Paradise: Gauguin’s Old Myth Is Re-Romanced

The French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), currently the focus of a major exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has for so long been so highly acclaimed and so gleefully debunked that a critic revisiting his work in the first decade of the 21st century is obliged to surmount a good deal of documentary debris on his way to reacquaint himself with the artist’s accomplishments. It isn’t only Gauguin’s art that confronts us in the very large exhibition called Gauguin Tahiti . What must also be accounted for is the vast accretion of myth, scandal, gossip, controversy and critical debate that for more than a century has established the artist himself as one of the archetypal legends of the modern era-the legend of the bourgeois stockbroker who abandons his job, his wife, his children, his class and his country for a life of artistic and sexual license in a faraway primitive paradise.

Never mind that the paradise of his dreams-principally Tahiti-turned out not to be as paradisal as the portents of Gauguin’s eager imagination (and his assiduous reading) had envisioned. Whatever its disappointments and discomforts, Tahiti offered the artist an opportunity to realize his burning ambitions: to find a subject and a style sufficiently exotic to cause a sensation in the Paris avant-garde (and thus justify his departure); and to enjoy a lifestyle sufficiently primitive to satisfy his contempt for the civilization he was determined to repudiate.

Given all the role-playing, mystification, self-aggrandizement and self-delusion that Gauguin invested in this endeavor-not to mention cold-blooded indifference to the casualties, both in Europe and Tahiti-it’s a mercy that the work of his Tahiti period is as good as it is. In this exhibition, moreover, we’re given the most exhaustive account of the period that has ever been attempted in a single survey; and to the already immense literature on Gauguin’s life and work, the show’s well-written, scrupulously documented and lavishly illustrated catalog adds another 370 large, glossy pages.

Even so, Gauguin Tahiti is not to be mistaken for a retrospective. Large though it is, with more than 150 works-including quantities of sculpture, prints, manuscripts and photographs, as well as the better-known paintings-this is a narrowly focused exhibition. Excluded are the earlier paintings from the years (1879-1886) when Gauguin was a regular contributor to the annual Impressionist exhibitions in Paris. Excluded, too, for the most part, are the Pont-Aven paintings of Normandy peasants-Gauguin’s first venture into a “primitivist” style-and the remains of his brief, ill-fated encounter with Van Gogh in the South of France. There’s nothing here to distract the viewer from concentrating on Gauguin’s romance with Tahiti in the last years of his tumultuous life. This gives Gauguin Tahiti a double advantage, for the Tahiti paintings include most, if not quite all, of his best work; and they remain today the work most closely identified with Gauguin in the public mind. If there’s also a downside to this concentrated attention, it may be that it will leave some viewers feeling that they have had more than enough of Gauguin’s Tahiti to last a lifetime. It is not, after all, an oeuvre of infinite variety and interest.

About the single most ambitious painting in the exhibition-the mural-scale canvas, measuring 148 by 55 inches, with its cosmic title, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98)-critical opinion is bound to be divided. Gauguin considered it his magnum opus, a summation of everything he hoped to achieve in painting in his Tahitian adventure. This is not, I think, the way the painting is likely to strike us today. Some of the smaller works related to the Where Do We Come From? painting are far more vibrant in color than the vaunted masterwork-among them, Bathers at Tahiti (1897-98), Delectable Waters (1897-98) and The Harvest (1897-98). And Tahitian Pastoral (1898), a smaller version of Where Do We Come From? , is in every respect a more compelling painting.

What’s so curious about Where Do We Come From? is that chromatic invention-one of Gauguin’s principal claims to fame-is largely abandoned in an effort to sustain tonal unity in such a large and complex composition. The result is a remarkably cool, almost bland painting, more akin in feeling to the pastoral idylls of Puvis de Chavannes than to the chromatic audacities of Gauguin’s Post-Impressionist contemporaries VanGogh, Seurat, Cézanne and, indeed, of Gauguin himself at his best. As George T.M. Shackelford, one of the curators of the exhibition, writes in the catalog: “Although [Gauguin] downplayed the painting’s relationship to the murals of Puvis on the grounds of procedure and intention, in formal terms he cannot have hoped that his figured landscape-for all its apparent rejection of classical formulas and execution-could escape comparison with the timeless groves that Puvis had popularized in murals for the museums in Lyon and Rouen, as well as the great hemicycle of the Sorbonne.” It may have been for this reason that Matisse, whose gifts as a colorist were often said to owe something to Gauguin, emphatically rejected the claim, declaring in 1949 that “The basis of Gauguin’s work and mine is not the same.”

Gauguin Tahiti remains on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston-its only American venue-through June 20. Admission to the exhibition requires a special ticket, which can be purchased by calling 617-542-4MFA or visiting http://www.mfa.org.