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Artist in Exile

Paul Gauguin in search of paradise.

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By DEBORAH DIETSCH
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Aside from this two-year hiatus in France, Gauguin spent the rest of his career in Polynesia, re-creating its idyllic past. In 1901 he moved to the remote Marquesas Islands, where he would die of syphilis at age 54 less than two years later. (His home, called the House of Pleasure, was entered through a doorway framed by sculpted wooden panels inspired by Maori carvings that are among the standouts in the exhibit.) By the end of his life, Gauguin wanted to return to France, but friends talked him out of it: He had become so identified with the South Seas that to change direction would have meant losing sales and reputation. So he clung to the past, enriching his myths with strong shapes of pinks, oranges, and purples that would influence modernists such as Matisse and Picasso.

 This exhibit doesn’t concentrate on that formal beauty but on the figurative narratives that set Gauguin apart from the avant garde. In doing so, it may disappoint some visitors seeking to feast their eyes on his lighter, more colorful paintings. (Several such loans from Russia didn’t make it into the show.) But for those interested in learning more about this celebrated artist, the National Gallery’s exhibit satisfies by illuminating the less obvious corners of Gauguin’s mythmaking in the bright light of paradise.

Deborah Dietsch is the former art critic of the Washington Times.

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