Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to Lend Gauguin Masterwork to Sister Museum in Nagoya, Japan

Paul Gauguin, (1897–1898), Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? oil on canvas, 139.1 × 374.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) (1897–98, MFA), will leave its home at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), this spring to make its first trip to Asia. The occasion is the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the MFA’s sister museum, the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (N/BMFA), which opened to the public on April 17, 1999. The seminal work by renowned Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) has rarely traveled since it was purchased by the Museum in 1936. It serves as the centerpiece of Gauguin, an exhibition of 40 works organized by the MFA in collaboration with the N/BMFA, which will be on view from April 18–June 21 in Nagoya, after which it will travel to the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo (MOMAT/Tokyo), where it will be on view from July 3–September 23. The exhibition, sponsored at both venues by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), will feature 20 of the rarest and most beautiful paintings, prints, and sculptural reliefs from the MFA’s extensive collection of works by Gauguin, as well as 20 loans from Japanese museums.

“It has been a privilege to partner with our colleagues in Nagoya these past 10 years,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “On this important anniversary, we are delighted to share one of the MFA’s greatest paintings, Gauguin’s masterpiece, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?, which will be seen for the first time by Japanese audiences.”

Gauguin considered D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? to be his final testament, the culmination of his prolific artistic career. Richly detailed in vibrant colors, the monumental canvas (4.5 x 12.25 feet) documents his passionate embrace of the natural world. Gauguin’s letters to associates back in France suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, with three major figure groups pondering the questions posed in the title, written in French in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. The three women and sleeping infant represent the beginning of life, the central group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood, and in the final group, according to the artist, the blue idol to the left of center represents “the Beyond,” while an old woman “approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts.” The painting arose from a time of great personal turmoil for Gauguin, beginning in 1897 as his health and mental state deteriorated, continuing through 1898 as he recovered from a failed suicide attempt. Though living in paradise, Gauguin was filled with self-doubt—fueled by lack of recognition and recompense—which plagued the artist until his 1903 death from syphilis in the Marquesas Islands.

“Gauguin was constantly reinventing himself, as seen in, D’où venons-nous?, which was painted during the artist’s years in Tahiti,” said exhibition curator George Shackelford, Chair, Art of Europe, and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA. “We are delighted to be able to share with the people of Japan not only this masterpiece, but also many other works by Gauguin from our collection.”

Shackelford will give a lecture on April 18 at the N/BMFA focusing on the artist’s voyages to Tahiti and the Marquesas—the South Sea islands where he produced his most brilliant works of art, including his masterpiece, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? Using Gauguin’s letters and journals of the period, he will illustrate how the artist’s sojourns to the other side of the globe changed his art, and the course of modern art in the 20th century.

In addition to showcasing approximately 20 works from the MFA’s collection, Gauguin also includes 20 loans from museums in Japan, including L’Allee des Alyscamps Arles (1888, Sompo Japan Museum of Art), a view of the Alyscamps at Arles painted by Gauguin during his stay there with Vincent van Gogh, and a superb group of Gauguin woodcuts on Tahitian themes from the Gifu Prefectural Museum, which will be paired with similar examples from the MFA. Te Nave Nave Fenua (1892, Ohara Museum of Art, Okayama, Japan), one of the artist’s most famous works, will be added to the exhibition on May 12. The exhibition is curated by Shackelford in collaboration with N/BMFA curator Satoko Inokuchi.

The range of works in Gauguin spans two decades of the artist’s prolific career, beginning with Entrance to the Village of Osny (1882–83, MFA) created when Gauguin was still a “Sunday painter,” and ending with Women and a White Horse (1903, MFA), one of his final paintings. While the majority of works in the exhibition were created during the artist’s time in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands (from 1891 to 1903), two of his early paintings are featured, Entrance to the Village of Osny, which reflects the Impressionist influence upon Gauguin—especially that of his mentor, Camille Pissarro—and Forest Interior (Sou Bois) (1884, MFA). Other works include Landscape with Two Breton Women (1889, MFA), reflecting the time Gauguin spent in Brittany, and Portrait de Stéphane Mallarmé (1891, MFA), an etching of his friend, Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98).

As a young man, Gauguin (b. 1848 in Paris) spent a decade as a successful stockbroker, all the while collecting contemporary art, including works by Renoir, Cézanne, Manet, and Pissarro. He developed an interest in painting in the early 1870s, but it was not until 1876 that he exhibited his own work for the first time. Gauguin participated in the Impressionist exhibitions beginning in 1879, when he was invited to join the group by Degas and Pissarro. In 1885, he abandoned his wife and children to devote himself to art in Paris and the South Pacific.

In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more natural. In his self-imposed exile, away from civilization, he created works of art that expressed a highly personal mythology influenced by this comparatively untamed, primitive world. His experiences were recounted in a journal, entitled Noa Noa. Back in Paris in 1893–95 he created woodcut prints evocative of his Tahitian life as illustrations for a planned publication of the journal. Included in the exhibition are L’Univers est crée (The Creation of the Universe) (1893–94, MFA), Nave Nave Fenua (Fragrant Isle) (1893–94, MFA) and Te Atua (The Gods) (1893–94, MFA).

Gauguin often used sculpture as a medium for social commentary, and two bas-reliefs in wood are prominently displayed in the exhibition. Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses (Be In Love and You Will Be Happy) (1889, MFA) is a symbolic masterpiece by Gauguin, a polychromed linden panel created before he departed France. The artist considered it “the best and strangest thing I have ever done in sculpture.” In it, he is depicted as a monster, seizing the hand of a protesting nude woman, saying to her: “Be in love and you will be happy.” This relief was carved during one of Gauguin’s immensely productive visits to Pont-Aven, in Brittany. Much about this sculpture foreshadows the art Gauguin created after he left France for the South Pacific, as seen in a composition made from two lengths of painted tamanu wood, La Guerre et La Paix: La Guerre (War and Peace: War) (1901, MFA) and La Guerre et La Paix: La Paix (War and Peace: Peace) (1901, MFA). These friezes incorporate multiple figures and include visual references to the Javanese Buddhist carvings at Borobudur, Adam in the Garden of Eden, and the ancient Column of Trajan in Rome. The central figure in the panel titled La Guerre—a mask-like giant face—is sometimes interpreted as a self-portrait by Gauguin. La Guerre et La Paix, carved late in the artist’s career, were commissioned by Gustave Fayet, an important early French collector of Gauguin’s works.

Gauguin was organized to mark the 10th anniversary of the N/BMFA. The mission of the N/BMFA is to share the distinguished encyclopedic collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and to further artistic and cultural partnerships between Japan and the United States. The Museum has had a long association with Japan beginning in 1890—about the time when Gauguin was working as an artist in Paris—when the MFA became the first museum inAmerica to establish a Japanese collection and appoint a curator specializing in Japanese art.


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