In 1891, when he had long since had his fill of Paris, of its constipated moods, its bourgeois proprieties and its hostility to him, the 43-year-old Gauguin wrote to the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro: "More than ever I am convinced that there is no such thing as exaggerated art. And I even believe that there is salvation only in extremes."
The extreme he would go to was Tahiti, where, while looking for paths beyond the exhausted conventions of Western art, he would make some of its greatest works. "Gauguin Tahiti," which opens this week at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after a hugely successful run at the Grand Palais in Paris, is one of the largest exhibitions ever mounted of those wild, influential canvases and carvings. Beautifully organized by George T.M. Shackelford of the Boston MFA and Claire Freches-Thory of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, it reaches a wide-screen crescendo with the Boston MFA's great canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Gauguin's wall-length summation of his personal universe.
Altogether the show holds 125 pieces by a man who worked at high pitch in oils, ceramics, prints and stone sculpture, to say nothing of wood carvings of a first-rate perversity. In Be in Love and You Will Be Happy, completed two years before he left France, but previewing what would be the Tahitian style, he carved a monstrous rendition of himself reaching toward a hesitant nude woman. A critic described it as "the deformed sculpture of a sadistic faun, whose kisses are slobbery and disgusting." You can see why he was tempted to leave France.
Gauguin's reception in this century has been very different. Is there any tale in modern art quite like that of his flight to the South Seas? More than a century after his death in 1903--at 54, from syphilis, nearly alone in the Marquesas, the islands where he fled when Tahiti proved too spoiled--his self-imposed exile still serves as the last word in escape fantasies. Tahiti was the place where he hoped to find a native culture in tune with his most uncivilized impulses and where he could discharge energies, artistic, spiritual and phallic, that bow-tied Europe wanted no part of. Even D.H. Lawrence, that subsequent prophet of the primal against the merely civilized, made a kind of homage to Gauguin in later life, when he bolted for New Mexico.
When Gauguin decided, at 35, to give himself over full time to his art, he did it with a passion. He abandoned his job as a stockbroker and deposited his Danish wife Mette and their five children back in Copenhagen, never to see them again. Tahiti would break his heart, of course. What he knew of the island was built mostly out of visits to the Paris World's Fair and from the romantic fabrications of the novelist Pierre Loti. By the time Gauguin made the first of his two voyages, in 1891, the native culture he hoped to find had been dressed, churched and adulterated by colonial administrators and Christian missionaries.