Elusive and yearning would be two good words to describe much of Gauguin’s life and art. In an interview in France on February 23, 1891, just days before leaving for Tahiti, Gauguin said he was leaving so he could be “at peace and can rid myself of civilization’s influence.” The famous aspiring primitive man went on to say: “I want to create only simple art. To do that, I need to immerse myself in virgin nature, see only savages, live their life, with no other care than to portray, as would a child, the concepts in my brain using only primitive artistic materials, the only kind that are good and true.” Ignoring the fact that Gauguin’s views were inherently colonialist in nature, Gauguin completed the journey and produced many works of art largely lauded today. Thus a new exhibition called Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise seeks to highlight the multifaceted relationship between the artist and Polynesia.

Unfortunately for most Americans, the only location you’ll be able to see the work is at the Seattle Art Museum, from February 9 to April 29 next year (it was organized in partnership with the Art Centre Basel, Basel, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen). Nevertheless, the show promises to unveil rarely viewed Gauguin paintings, as well as better known works such as Women of Tahiti (Femmes de Tahiti), 1891; Faaturuma (Melancholic), 1891; Arearea no Varua ino (Words of the Devil, or Reclining Tahitian Women), 1894; and finally, Gauguin’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carrière, circa 1888. Importantly, the show seeks to highlight the effect of Polynesian art on Gauguin’s art. To be clear, organisers want the focus to be on Polynesian artwork more so than Gauguin – this isn’t about Gauguin oil paintings and the effect on the European continent. To that extent it will feature 60 Polynesian artworks and include information about the history and then contemporary movements within Polynesian art, revealing the dramatic changes that filtered through to Gauguin and eventually, Europe.

Paul Gauguin was always one to take the path less trodden. A crucial aspect of the Gauguin folklore was that he was always dissatisfied with the bourgeois life and he yearned for the simple and the exotic. Gauguin first tried to find his utopia in the bohemian arts community at Pont-Aven on the coast of Brittany, but failed. Later, he moved to the South Seas island of Tahiti, but in reality the culture and people had already become too influenced with French culture after nearly 130 years of contact, including direct and often brutal colonialism. Dissatisfied, he moved to the Marquesas Islands, which were even more isolated, where he eventually died in 1903. How much of Gauguin’s perception of the “savage” life was true? How much did Polynesian art actually affect him? How were his perceptions responsible for skewing Western perceptions of the East and the other? All these questions are undeniably worth examining considering the importance of Gauguin on modern art.