Past Exhibition Special Exhibition

Paul Gauguin




About the Exhibition

Why did Gauguin make his way towards the tropical island of Tahiti?

The artist, Gauguin, continued his search for the essentials of humanity whilst being torn apart by the extremities between civilized and savage, sacred and profane, life and death, man and woman, spiritual and materialistic.

Gauguin’s masterpiece which was painted in Tahiti, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are We Going?, will be exhibited in Japan for the first time and through this work, the exhibition will attempt to reveal the message which the artist left behind for civilized society.

The artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) turned his back on the highly developed western civilization of the end of the 19th century and made his way alone to the solitary island of Tahiti in the South Seas.

It can be said that his tumultuous life is typical of the lonely wandering artist who sacrificed his life for art.

Awakened by his inner “wildness”, Gauguin searched for the “paradise” which would nurture his nascent singular imagination. His search led him to Brittany with its strong tradition of Celtic culture, Martinique with its sparkling tropical nature, Arles, in the South of France, which provided the stage for his legendary collaborative work with Van Gogh, and his two journeys to Tahiti. In this way, Gauguin continued to travel with no ending in sight. During this process, he arrived at the fundamental subject matter of human life and death, civilized and savage. The aim of Gauguin’s paintings was to express through the language of form, the deep emotions and contemplations of human existence.

His great masterpiece which was painted in Tahiti, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), represents the consolidation of what he was attempting to achieve through his art. Along with the enigmatic title, this work represents his spiritual testament which he left behind for future generations. The exhibition will display this masterpiece along with approximately 50 works including oil paintings, prints and sculptures on loan from within Japan and abroad. Through these works we hope to reconsider again Gauguin’s art as a message for the confused world of today.

About the Sections

1. The discovery of the inner “wildness”

Attaining success as a stockbroker, Gauguin married Mette Gad, a Danish woman, and led a happy family life. However, as his friendship with Impressionist painters such as Pissarro deepened, his passion for painting became increasingly difficult to control and in 1883 Gauguin suddenly made the decision to live his life as an artist. His family life ended in failure and from then on the artist’s solitary wanderings began. His separation from the influences of Impressionism, which had been strongly prevalent in his early style, was achieved when he discovered the Brittany region with its living presence of Celtic tradition. There the artist simplified his form and used flat colour planes with emphatic outlines and he established a style which revealed a firm but decorative composition.

This achievement resulted from the fact that Gauguin’s inner “wildness” and the intense surroundings of the Brittany region resonated together.

2. The tropical paradise; mythology and reality

Gauguin put his artistic future at stake when he headed to Tahiti in 1891. The decision came from his hope that the primitive and wild elements in Tahiti would give further impetus to his artistic investigations. However, the South Pacific Island of Tahiti, which was discovered in the 18th century by the British and which had become a French colony in 1880, was no longer an innocent land of paradise. Gauguin pondered on the Maori tradition which was gradually being eroded away by the influx of western civilization and he overlapped it with his savage sensibilities. Thus, he borrowed the glowing golden body of Tahiti women to depict the vitality inherent in primeval mankind, the mystery of the sexes as well as the struggles faced by those living on this earth. These abundant images intermingle with Tahitian culture, Christian motifs such as Eve in the Garden of Eden, as well as imageries of all ages and cultures.

3. Beyond the South Seas; painting as his dying wish

On returning to Paris in 1893, Gauguin faced a lack of understanding towards his works from the Tahiti years. Disillusioned with the Parisian art scene, Gauguin headed for Tahiti again in 1895, vowing never to return to Europe. However, with the deterioration of his health on top of financial difficulties, days followed where it was difficult for him to produce works of art. Furthermore, the news of the death of his beloved daughter pushed Gauguin further into a deep sadness. Cursing his own destiny, he began to work on his masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? as his last words. Created in the abyss of despair, the work, however, quietly portrays the artist’s philosophical thoughts on human existence. In his continuing search for unspoiled land, Gauguin moved to the Marquise Islands in 1901 and spent his remaining days there.

Perhaps it can be said that the horse which often appears in his late works is evoking his journey to the other world.

About Artists

Chronology of Paul Gauguin


Born in Paris, France to a journalist father and a mother who was the daughter of proto-socialist leader of aristocratic Peruvian descent.
Moves to Peru, where he spends his childhood.


Returns to Paris.


Takes employment as an assistant pilot in the merchant marine.


Returns to Paris, where he enjoys success as a stockbroker and, one year later, marries a Danish woman, Mette Gad.
Becomes friendly with Camille Pissarro and other Impressionist artists.
Starts collecting paintings and also to paint himself.


Presents his work at the 4th Impressionist Exhibition.
Participates in this annual exhibition until the final event in 1886.


Retires from his business to become a professional painter.


Stays at Pont-Aven in Brittany.


Travels to Panama and Martinique.


Lives with Van Gogh in Arles for a short time.
Van Gogh cuts off his own ear. Gauguin returns to Paris.


His first stay in Tahiti.


Returns to Paris, where he presents a personal exhibition of works from Tahiti at the galerie Durand-Ruel.


Prepares the woodblocks for his Noa Noa prints.


Stays in Brittany.


His second stay in Tahiti.


Paints Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?


Presents a personal exhibition of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and nine minor works at the Galerie Vollard.


Moves to Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas Islands.


Dies of heart attack.


Hours & Admissions


Art Museum Special Exhibition Gallery




10:00 – 17:00
*Last admission is 30 minutes before closing.


Mondays (except July 20, August 17, 24 and September 21) and July 21, 2009


Day ticket (Advance tickets / Group of 20 persons or more)
Adults   ¥1500 (1200 / 1100)
College/University students   ¥1000 (800 / 700)
High school students   ¥600 (400 / 300)

*All prices include tax.
*Advance ticket: sale through July 2.
*Middle school age and under are free of charge.
*Persons with disability and one person accompanying them are admitted free of charge.
*Ticket valid for admission to this exhibition and collection gallery.


The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
NHK, NHK Promotions


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Agency for Cultural Affairs


Sompo Japan Insurance Inc.
Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd.
Mitsubishi Corporation

Special cooperation

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts


Japan Airlines Corporation


NTT Hello Dial 03-5777-8600

Media Inquiries

Public Relations Gauguin Exhibition
(2-25-18 Nishi-azabu, Minato-ku Tokyo. 106-8611)
Tel. 03-3486-0575 FAX 03-3499-0958

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