One hundred years ago, on 8 May 1903, Paul Gauguin died in his remote Maison du Jouir, on Atuona in the Marquesas. To celebrate this anniversary, some fifty years after the Museé de l'Orangerie's 1949 commemoration of his birth, the Musée d'Orsay, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are paying tribute to the man who, on the eve of his death, claimed "the right to dare to do anything at all".
In 1897, during his second stay in Tahiti, Gauguin started work on the huge painting that he saw as the culmination of his artistic career: "Before I die, I wanted to paint the big picture I had in may head, and I worked feverishly on it day and night for a whole month. It isn't canvas done like a Puvis de Chavannes, studies from life, preparatory sketches and so forth…" he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfreid.
"It was all painted directly with the tip of a brush on a piece of sacking full of knots and rough bits, so it looks terribly crude." At the upper left of the painting, in a triangle of vivid flat yellow, he wrote: "D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?), thus signing one of his greatest masterpieces. Forty years later, this pictorial survey, which first belonged to the French collector Gabriel Frizeau, was added to the collections of the Boston Museum.
For the first time in over fifty years, the work is returning to France where it will be surrounded by the eight paintings - replica-fragments or studies, as Thadée Natanson called them - which were exhibited with it in the Ambroise Vollard gallery in 1898.
Focused on Gauguin's two consecutive stays in Tahiti (1891-1893) then in the Marquesas (1895-1903), the exhibition explores the sources of Where Do We Come From? ¸through paintings and sculptures from Gauguin's first trip, which show his gradual appropriation of Polynesian culture, and his search for the "savage" element. It then shows extensions of this "testament" piece over the last five years of Gauguin's turbulent life.
It attempts to answer the questions that he raised about art by giving the Boston painting its title: "Where does a painting begin and where does it end?" He wrote: "At the moment when extreme feelings are in fusion in the depths of a being, at the moment when they burst and the entire idea gushes out like lava from a volcano, that is when the created work suddenly emerges, isn't it? Brutal if you like, but great and apparently superhuman. … Yet who knows when the work started in the depths of that being?"
This key work is placed in the centre of the exhibition, flanked by some fifty paintings executed during the artist's two stays in Polynesia – among them Teha'amana's Ancestors (The Art Institute of Chicago), Te nave nave fenua, The Delightful Land (Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan), Rupe Rupe, Picking Fruit (Pushkin Museum, Moscow) – about thirty sculptures and objets d'art (the "savage trinkets" which are the very source of Primitivism), over sixty graphic works (drawings, pastels, engravings and monotypes) as well as Gauguin's major manuscripts, including Noa Noa, L'Ancien culte mahorie and Cahier pour Aline.
Forty photographs (G. Spitz, G. Arosa, H. Lemasson…) and Polynesian artefacts similar to those that Gauguin may have seen in the Pacific set this outstanding collection in its ethnographic and artistic context.
The exhibition has assembled a total of more than two hundred works from museums and private collections in Europe (Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, …) America (Boston, Chicago, New York, Washington…), Russia and Japan.