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Gauguin in Tahiti: this immensely popular exhibition, which has moved from Paris to Boston, provides a near comprehensive account of Gauguin's work in the South Seas.

After attracting 535,000 visitors in Paris, 'Gauguin 'Tahiti' has moved on to Boston, where it is pulling in the crowds. Gauguin's bold decision to seek a new life in Polynesia provides an extraordinary tale and the resulting paintings represent the highpoint of his career. Working in isolation, his personal experiences in Tahiti infused his art. Even today, Gauguin's canvases strike viewers with their raw power, and not surprisingly they shocked Parisian audiences of his own time. The intriguing question, rarely addressed, is how they were perceived by the islanders he depicted. We can only wonder at how the thirteen-year-old Tehamana, his Tahitian Eve, reacted to her image in paint.

Gauguin made his first trip to the South Seas in 1891, having dropped earlier plans to head for Tonkin or Madagascar. Although Tahiti was one of the furthest points on earth from Paris, Gauguin was disappointed by the extent of colonial influence in the capital, Papeete, and he soon escaped to the outlying village of Mataiea in search of the 'primitive' life. After a two-year return to France (1893 95), partly to sell his work, he came back to Tahiti, this time settling in the village of Punaauia. Then, in 1901, he set off for Hiva Oa in the more remote Marquesas Islands. Despite his declining health, it was there that he created his 'maison du jouir', its entrance flanked with the carved wooden door frame (Musee d'Orsay) which is in the Boston exhibition. He died just two years later, and was buried in the Catholic cemetery above the village of Atuona.

The South Seas was the setting for nearly half of Gauguin's entire oeuvre of around five hundred paintings, bur surprisingly, it is only recently that exhibition organisers have focussed solely on his Tahitian period. Two competing shows were held in Germany in Stuttgart in 1998 and a larger one in Essen/Berlin in 1998 99. A small exhibition was also held in Papeete last year, centred on four oil paintings from the Musee d'Orsay, together with works on paper and sculptures. Four oils may sound very few, hut none remain in Tahitian public collections, so mounting the Papeete show was a considerable achievement.

To mark the centenary of Gauguin's death, Paris and Boston were the natural partners for a major retrospective on the Tahitian years. The Musee d'Orsay has one of the world's finest collection of the artist's work, including nine paintings from this period. Boston owns Gauguin's masterpiece, D'ou venoms-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?. For the first time in over fifty years, this huge canvas (over twelve feet long) was allowed to travel abroad, to become the key loan to Paris. Altogether nearly fifty of Gauguin's paintings and seventy-five works on paper were assembled, together with around fifty sculptures and other three-dimensional objects. It was good to see the sculptures given the prominence they deserve, since these have often been overshadowed by the more dramatic paintings.

At the Grand Palais (where I saw the show) the exhibition opened with a room of ethnographic material, an appropriate beginning. As a sculptor, Gauguin must have been interested in the dying traditions of native craftsmanship, although the influence on his own work was subtle. For instance, he borrowed the carved shape of decorated ear plugs fashioned of whale tooth and used the motif to provide a design for a crenellated fence in his painting La est le temple (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The Paris show also included a considerable number of late-nineteenth-century photographs of Tahiti, giving a vivid idea of island life. Next came a rich selection of paintings and sculptures from the first visit to Tahiti, including the marvellous canvas of esprit des morts veille (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), depicting the naked Tehamana, fearful of her ancestors' spirits.

At the Grand Palais most of the works on paper were confined to a large room, whereas in Boston the prints alternate with the paintings. Although the prints lack the impact of the colourful paintings, it was a treat to see the illustrated manuscript of Noa Noa, which is only very rarely shown, for conservation reasons. Noa Noa is in Boston, on its first trip outside France since it entered the Louvre in 1929. The final section of the show comprised paintings and sculptures from the second Tahitian period. In both venues the presentation was basically chronological, with a striking, but simple hang.

D'ou venons-nous? provided the climax of the show. Completed shortly after his failed suicide attempt, the painting is undoubtedly Gauguin's finest work. This highly complex composition defies a simple explanation, but it draws together many of the themes and motifs of his Tahitian years. One of the achievements of the Paris/Boston exhibition was to present D'ou venons-nous? surrounded by eight of the nine pictures which Gauguin made to be shown with it at Vollard's gallery in 1898 (the elusive ninth work could not be borrowed from a very private collection in the Americas). A few months ago, but too late for it to be shown in the Paris/Boston exhibition, German scholar Elise Eckermann produced evidence that a tenth work had also been shown at Vollard's--Faa Ara of 1898 (Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, Copenhagen).

The Boston exhibition catalogue is a profusely illustrated volume, edited by co-curators George Shackelford and Claire Freches-Thory, and with fifteen essays by specialists. Most of the Tahitian story has been told before, and ideally one would have wished for more discoveries to have emerged in a show of this scale. The lack of catalogue entries is frustrating, particularly in view of the absence of a recent catalogue raisonne of Gauguin's Tahitian paintings. The 1964 Wildenstein catalogue had its faults even when it was published, and it is now very dated. It also has virtually nothing on the iconography of the pictures, which is often complex and needs explanation. Fortunately the Wildenstein Institute is working on a fully updated catalogue raisonne on the Tahitian period, to follow the two excellent volumes on Gauguin's work up to 1888, published two years ago.

The French edition of the exhibition catalogue: is basically the same as the English one, but the Grand Palais publication has more comparative illustrations and includes a bibliography. The Musee d'Orsay is planning to publish the proceedings of a Gauguin symposium which was held in Paris in December 2003.

The exhibition 'Gauguin Tahiti' was at the Grand Palais, Paris, from 3 October 2003 until 19 January 2004. It is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until 20 June 2004. The catalogue, edited by George Shackelford and Claire Freches-Thory, is published by Thames & Hudson, London, 2004, ISBN 0 500 093229, 42 [pounds sterling] (cloth); Boston Museum of Fine Arts, ISBN 0 87846 666 5, $65 (cloth); and Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris, 2003, ISBN 2 7118 4576 1, 45 [euro] (paper)

Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh specialist, is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper. His recent publications include 'Memories of Van Gogh and Gauguin: Hartrick's reminiscences', in the Van Gogh Museum Journal (2001).
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Title Annotation:Exhibitions
Author:Bailey, Martin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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