The Nagoya/Boston MFA offers a unique opportunity to view Paul Gauguin's masterwork in Japan.
May 15, 2009
Was he just a “Sunday painter” who abandoned his wife and five children for a bohemian life in a distant island paradise — where he died of syphilis and poverty in the arms of a teenage mistress?
Or, was he one of the 19th century’s greatest artists, an idealist with a restless spirit that searched for pure beauty in a primitive style that inspired Pablo Picasso and luscious colors that influenced Henri Matisse?
There is no question that Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was an enigma even among the avant-garde post-Impressionist painters of his time and friends like Camille Pissarro and Vincent Van Gogh, with whom he had a famous falling out.
While unappreciated during his lifetime, Gauguin’s artistic legacy remains an influential force and his Tahitian adventures an exotic fantasy. For audiences in Japan, an exhibition of his work at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts till June 21 is a rare treat. Titled simply “Gauguin,” the exhibition features wood-carved reliefs, sculptures, prints and oil paintings. Twenty-five are from collections and museums throughout Japan, and 19 are from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, including the iconic 4-meter-wide “D’ou Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Ou Allons Nous?” (“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”).
“This kind of exhibition will not happen again,” says Malcolm Rogers, director of the Boston MFA, while in Nagoya to attend the opening of the show and the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Nagoya/Boston alliance.
“It is our most important European painting, the one that is so singular it’s unlike anything else in the world, nothing equivalent in grandeur,” says George Shackelford, the show’s curator and renowned head of European art at the Boston MFA. “He did things as beautiful, but none that were for him as deeply and profoundly significant.”
Gauguin painted “Where Do We Come From?” in 1897-98 after settling on isolated Hiva Oa, an island in the Marquesas about halfway between Tahiti and Hawaii. It was to be his final testament, as a suicide attempt followed.
“I shall never do anything better or even like it,” he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1898. Poor and sick, Gauguin died five years later on May 8, 1903, at 54.
“As his health deteriorated so did his drawing skills, but his genius for color never left him,” says Shackelford.
The title reflects the painting’s narrative, viewed right to left: a baby at far right (“Where Do We Come From?”), midway a man plucking an apple from a tree, evoking Adam in the Garden of Eden (“Where Are We?”) and an old woman near death at the far left (“Where Are We Going?”) crouched next to a white bird that Gauguin said represented “the futility of words.”
“The body of the man is like the body of Eve in ‘Te Nave Nave Fenua,’ ” explains Shackelford. This painting, also in the show, is on loan from the Ohara Museum and is considered the finest Gauguin in Japan. “The nude bodies in Gauguin’s paintings were based on the figure of a bodhisattva from the great Buddhist temple at Borobudur in Java,” he reveals. Gauguin bought photographs of the temple at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair that he kept with him for the rest of his life.
The old woman in “Where Do We Come From?” can also be seen in one of the show’s wood reliefs titled “Be in Love and You will be Happy.” She is based on images Gauguin had drawn of a mummified body from Peru that he saw in Paris.
“The composition works on being almost abstract with changing perspective,” says Shackelford. “It’s more eccentric than anything he had done so far. . . . When this sculpture was exhibited in Brussels at that time, critics called it perverse.”
After Gauguin sent “Where Do We Come From?” to Paris in 1898, it languished for three years in the stock of gallery owner Ambroise Vollard before it was sold to a collector in Bordeaux for less money than Gauguin had agreed on. When it came back on the market in 1914, Matisse recommended his Russian patron buy it, but ultimately a collector in Oslo made the purchase after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also passed on an offer. Twenty years later, the painting was consigned through Paris and New York before it came to the MFA.
“Amazingly, the very conservative MFA trustees decided to buy it for $80,000,” says Shackelford. “It was a miracle that they were willing to do it, because at that time (1936), it was a contemporary work painted with nudes.” The artwork is now estimated at close to $39 million.
Gauguin, like many of his contemporaries, was influenced by the art of Japan, so the painting has blended well with the Boston MFA’s encyclopedic collection.
“We were the first American museum to build a Japanese collection,” says Rogers. It is one of the largest in the world with 4,000 Japanese paintings and more than 30,000 ukiyo-e(genre painting) prints. “Our relationship with Japan has been, for over 130 years, a very very strong one,” he says.
The 10-year Nagoya/Boston MFA partnership has, in the long run, been advantageous for both. The 20-plus biannual exhibitions from the Boston museum held in Nagoya have attracted 3.3 million visitors since the first in 1999, boosting the city’s profile. The Boston MFA receives an annual $1 million donation for the exchange, contributing in part toward their ambitious building expansion and a new American Wing opening in 2010.
“We began with a contract but it is now a relationship, a marriage which has seen difficult economic times but also some wonderfully good times,” says Rogers.
Hatched in the booming economy of 1991, the partnership teetered in 1993 when the Japan stock market plunged. A renegotiated contract has been backed by the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce and local taxpayers. This latest global financial crisis has motivated the Nagoya museum to rethink its strategy.
“Our mission is to introduce the MFA collections to art fans in Japan, but we would like use the fifth floor of the museum as an exhibition venue for local contemporary artists,” says Shunkichi Baba, director of the Nagoya/Boston MFA. “By doing this we can introduce contemporary Japanese works to the Boston MFA curators, who will hopefully want to show these to their American audience. That way we can start building a real cultural exchange between Japan and the United States.”