Gauguin's vision of paradise

In 1890, at the age of 42, Paul Gauguin -- a merchant seaman, successful Paris stockbroker, full-time eccentric and Sunday painter -- was about to fulfill a romantic dream to go to the South Seas and cultivate his art in, as he called it, "its primitive and savage state."

His hope was fulfilled -- at least on canvas. When "Gauguin Tahiti," a cornucopia of color and passion, opened in Paris late last year it was a national event: the President of the Republic along with thousands of Parisians celebrated the work of a favorite prodigal son who hungered all his life for such adulation.

"Gauguin Tahiti" -- 150 paintings, wooden sculpture, ceramics, drawings, doodles and manuscripts -- crossed the Atlantic and docked at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

"[Gauguin] totally wanted praise," says George Shackelford, the curator of the exhibition. "And he wanted to be famous. He wanted to be recognized as one of the great, great artists."


Detail from "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" (1897) by Paul Gauguin.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In Paris of the 1880s, Gauguin was surrounded by greatness -- his friends Camille Pissaro, Van Gogh, the poet Mallarme, only added to his restlessness. In 1885, he abandoned everything - his wife, children and job -- for art. Gauguin, some say, was a self-obsessed man.

"He's a deeply spiritual man without being particularly religious. He often identifies himself with Christ or John the Baptist or a soul in hell ... these figures in some way [were] tormented or persecuted," says Shackelford.

Gauguin escaped to Tahiti. The so-called primitivism of Tahiti called to him, to what he would have described as his inner savage. Wooden panels were his response. One is "Be in Love and You Will Be Happy." The other was "Be Mysterious." They are themes that haunted the rest of his life.

"His interest in love and death is everywhere in his art," says Shackelford. "In 'Be in Love and You Will be Happy,' for instance, the old woman, this tortured woman, the fox, the Indian [are] symbols of perversity, he says."

The woman in the artwork looks Polynesian, but he had not been in Polynesia until two years after completing the work. In 1891, he arrived in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.

While in Tahiti, Gauguin created his first major masterpiece painting, "La Orana Maria," which means "Hail Mary" in the Tahitian language.

Gauguin had a romantic vision of Tahiti, some of which was blatantly untrue. Captain Cook called Tahiti "paradise on earth." But when Gauguin made it to Tahiti, he was rendered senseless by how awful it was.

"He finds himself not in this Eden, but instead in a little colonial town with far too many administrators, missionaries," says George Shackelford.

So, Gauguin went out to the countryside and invented his untamed paradise: sun-soaked landscapes and young naked voluptuous women. His mistress, his muse, was a girl named Tehamana. She was Eve in his imaginary Garden of Eden.

There is a sense of irony in one painting of Tehamana, who wears a drab western dress.

"I think he deliberately puts her in this European dress and then against this background," says Shackelford. "It is completely the South Seas and he entitles the picture, 'The Ancestors of Tehamana,' to talk about that heritage that is lost to her but he tries to give back to her."

Shackelford explains Gauguin may have been a lascivious old man, but there's a lot of love in his painting.

In 1893, Gauguin returned to Paris with about 60 paintings and sculptures, and the belief that once seen, the name Gauguin would be carved into the pantheon, along with Van Gogh and Pissaro. The critics, however, hated his work.

He pressed on. Gauguin opened a studio in Paris and produced his most important sculpture, the menacing "Oviri," which means savage. And, Gauguin had his manuscript, a kind of diary-memoir, on view for the first time, outside of its home in the Louvre in Paris.

Gauguin called his journal "Noa Noa," which means "fragrant" in Tahitian. Shackelford says the manuscript is meant to explain his Tahitian experience because he realizes that the Parisian audience really doesn't understand what he's been up to, and finds his work sort of impenetrable.

"[Gauguin] certainly is an artist who makes a myth about himself," says Shackelford. "But I think he wanted that experience to be understood by people and he wanted it specifically to be understood in European terms."

Disillusioned with France, and little to show for his efforts, Gauguin sailed back to Tahiti in 1895. He would never return.

He settled on the coast, and began work on a group of paintings that laid the groundwork for his masterwork, one of the Boston Museum's greatest treasures, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

"He decodes the painting for us, in a couple of letters where he refers to the child and the source of the river as 'Where do we come from,'" says Shackelford. "The standing figure, the astonished woman behind him, the figures who dare to think of their destiny, 'What are we?' And the old woman near to death, 'Where are we going?' So, if you read the text from right to left, it's: youth, adulthood, old age."

In 1897, when he began work on the monumental painting, Gauguin was broke, suffering from syphilis, a broken leg, and his eyesight was failing. He attempted to commit suicide by swallowing arsenic, and had a horrible night of agony and vomiting. The next day, the artist made his way back to his house, where he continued to work on the painting.

Unlike Van Gogh, who kept trying and feeling he wasn't succeeding, Gauguin felt he was succeeding.

"[Gauguin] wrote to his friend, 'I've never done anything better, and I never shall,'" says Shackelford. "He realized that this was his greatest work. And, I think, he's right.

Deathly ill and depressed, he continued to work, conjuring Tahitian nudes in magical settings - a Tahiti of his fantasy.

"In 1901, a couple of years after painting these pictures, he decided that Tahiti wasn't the place he wanted to be," says Shackelford. "He needed to be someplace more remote. So, he left on a boat and a week later he was 700 miles away in Hiva Oa on the Marquesas Islands.

There, Gauguin lived out his days in a house built of woven bamboo. He named it Maison du Jouir -- in polite translation, "The House of Pleasure" -- carving an extraordinary wooden doorframe with the familiar inscription "Be in Love and You will Be Happy" and "Be Mysterious" -- an echo of his earliest dreams of Tahiti.

Paul Gauguin died on May 8, 1903. The artist is buried in a Catholic cemetery on top of a hill above a beautiful plane filled with trees and flowers, which ironically is depicted in some of his last paintings such as "Women and a White Horse."

Gauguin achieved his desperately sought fame after his death.

In 1906, his work was exhibited at the Salon in a fantastic exhibition that becomes the great source of inspiration for a whole generation of modern artists -- Picasso and Matisse," says Shackelford.

Like so many of the greatest artists, Gauguin lives larger in death than he ever did in life. Just weeks before he died, he wrote to a friend: " ... it is true that I know so little! ... and who knows whether that little, when put to good use by others, will not become something big."