Tropical Feast

On the south seas island paradise of Tahiti in 1897, French artist Paul Gauguin prepared for death. Suffering from a badly broken leg and boils that were probably caused by syphilis, Gauguin threw himself into painting what he called his "artistic testament": a gigantic canvas that traced humankind from birth to death. He skipped his usual preparatory studies, attacking the work "day and night that whole month in an incredible fever," as he described it. Then he fled to the mountains, swallowed a potent dose of arsenic and waited to die.

He didn't. And once he recovered, he decided to finish the rich-hued, deeply moving "Where Do We Come From? Where Are We? Where Are We Going?" He also executed nine smaller canvases that amplify themes in the panorama, then shipped the whole lot to Paris, where they were put on exhibit and sold individually for paltry sums. Now, to mark the centenary of Gauguin's actual death (in 1903, of an aneurysm at 54), the Grand Palais in Paris is showing "Where Do We Come From...?" and eight of the nine smaller pictures for the first time since the suite was broken up. The collection marks the grand and glorious climax of "Gauguin-Tahiti: Studio of the Tropics," a ravishing exhibit (through Jan. 19, then moving to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts) of 50 paintings and 150 prints, sculptures, woodcuts and manuscripts created during Gauguin's 10 years in the South Seas.

Gauguin's obsession with both Polynesia and painting came late in life. Born in Paris in 1848, he was raised by his widowed mother in Peru, where his paternal half-Peruvian grandmother lived. "You know, I have Indian blood, Inca blood, in me," he later wrote, "and it's reflected in everything I do." At 17, Gauguin joined the French Navy and sailed around the world, encountering many native cultures during the ship's ports of call. In 1872, he married a Danish woman named Mette Gad and they settled in Paris, where he worked as a stockbroker for a decade. All the while, Gauguin collected contemporary art by the impressionists--in particular Renoir, Manet, Pissarro, who later became a friend, and Cezanne, whose primitive style and sweeping colors affected him deeply.

In 1883, at 35, Gauguin abruptly left his wife, his five children and his bourgeois lifestyle to devote himself to art. He traveled to Brittany, where he painted and sculpted, and to Martinique, where he discovered the vibrant beauty of the tropics. Then he moved to Arles, in Provence, where he and his friend Vincent van Gogh painted colorful landscapes and planned their escape to Tahiti, which they imagined as exotic, bountiful and free of stifling European mores. Gauguin visited the Colonial Exhibitions at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and the Musee de l'Homme, where he immersed himself in Polynesian culture.

"Gauguin-Tahiti" opens with a small selection of hand-carved idols, which the curators believe Gauguin studied, as well as two impressive hand-carved linden wood panels that he executed in Brittany. The first, "Be in Love and You Will Be Happy," made in 1889, is a haunting image of an island native terrorized by demons, including Gauguin himself as a monster. The second, "Be Mysterious," is a more serene view of an island girl watched over by the gods. The panels not only foretell what Gauguin would create in Tahiti but also hint at how he constructed his oeuvre: as one of the great artistic plagiarists of his time.

Throughout the show, there are recurring themes, images and designs taken directly from the idols, photographs and books he studied. From a photo of the carved stone temple of Borobudur in Indonesia, for example, he copied shapes of bushes, trees, animals, character poses and decorative designs. From a tiny bone earring from the Marquesas Islands that he saw in the Musee de l'Homme, he swiped a zigzag pattern to use as a fence in his 1892 Tahiti painting "There Is the Temple."

In 1891, Gauguin finally left for Tahiti--sans Van Gogh, who had committed suicide the previous year. Upon his arrival in Papeete, he was distraught to find that decades of colonization and missionary education had virtually obliterated his romantic visions of island life. He ventured deep into the jungles to a remote village and set to work. His early paintings--16 of which are on display--show his many influences: the bold colors of Van Gogh, the straightforward compositions of Cezanne, and his Roman Catholic upbringing. In the sublime tableau "The Delightful Land," Gauguin combines all three by recreating his 14-year-old Tahitian girlfriend Teha'amana as Eve in the Garden of Eden. A serpent whispers in her ear as she plucks a flower, a stand-in for the forbidden apple.

Gauguin also developed his own romanticized version of Tahitian spiritual culture. He hand-carved wooden idols, which he Westernized using polished shells as halos and parrotfish teeth for menacing mouths. In paintings such as "In Olden Times," he depicted local girls dancing around a gigantic idol, one several times larger than Tahitians would have had in reality. In 1893, he returned to France for two years with 66 canvases and his "ultrabarbaric" sculptures, as he put it, which the French neither appreciated nor bought. Frustrated, Gauguin began to write "Noa Noa," a memoir of his sojourn in Polynesia. The book, illustrated with vivid watercolors of Tahitian flora and fauna and sketches of his paintings, is on display and is also projected onto computer screens to allow viewers to see his work page by page.

Depressed at his poor reception in Paris, Gauguin moved back to Tahiti in 1895. He settled in a coastal village, took up with another local teenage girl and spent the following year creating a powerful oeuvre. The pictures feel more settled and mature; Gauguin was no longer a sightseer but had become a local. After his suicide attempt, and the completion of "Where Do We Come From...?" and its nine sister paintings, Gauguin moved to the remote island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. He settled in a hut that he dubbed "The House of Pleasure." Around the door, he installed five redwood panels--now the closing works of the show--which he carved with his favorite images: jungle animals, lush local women and tropical fruits and flowers. Like the two panels he had carved in Brittany a decade earlier, Gauguin inscribed on the left side be mysterious, and on the right, be in love and be happy. In the end, Gauguin was all three.