"I will found the Studio of the Tropics. Anyone who wishes to visit me there may do so." So Paul Gauguin declared before setting off for Tahiti. He wasn't trying to go it alone. "Studio", atelier, meant something collective, a group of artists, a tropical school, an artistic colony you might say, and he was hoping that others, like Van Gogh, might join him. The whole plan had really been Van Gogh's idea. But by the time Gauguin left in 1891 - having rejected other remote destinations as insufficiently uncivilised - Van Gogh was dead. No other artists joined him out there. Gauguin became the patron saint of those who chuck everything in and leave it all behind.
The plan was a change of art - "a great rebirth of painting awaits us there" - through a change of life. Getting away from modernity, industrialisation, capitalism, wife, kids, the need to work, to an idyll of plenty and instinct and an uninhibited supply of young girls. It was not always the paradise he imagined, but paintings were indeed painted, and the life and the art eventually became proverbial, a byword for great escapes, for the lure of what we now call "the Other". The history of art doesn't offer a stranger mixture of success and failure.
A hundred years ago, aged 54, and after prolonged bad health, Gauguin died in his hut, his so-called Maison de Jouir, in the Marquesas islands. The hand-carved sign-boards of this dwelling are the final exhibit in the centenary show that has just opened in Paris. Gauguin-Tahiti, l'Atelier des Tropiques, at the Grand Palais, is focused entirely on the artist's last dozen years, the two trips to the South Pacific (with a short return to Paris in the middle).
It's a pretty complete show, as it needs to be. Almost all Gauguin's paintings from this period are famous, and any absences - there are some, of course - will be conspicuous. It also includes lots of Gauguin's wood- carvings and prints, and the show culminates in his huge panoramic pseudo- mural called Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? - not his last work, but certainly his big pictorial testament, "a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the gospel".
Gauguin aimed very high. His excursion to the tropics was not a voyage into his own head. He was the most public-spirited of the post-Impressionists. He was an artist of Wagnerian ambitions. What he has in mind, what he hopes to create from his South Sea experience, is some kind of revolution, a version of one of those grand 19th-century fusion projects, in which everything - art and religion and living, instinct and sensation and symbolism - comes together. His Paris show of 1893 didn't succeed. But if Gauguin had enjoyed Wagner's lifetime fame, who knows what big things he might have done.
Like any Primitivism, Gauguin's project was contradictory, compromised. The place he went to, to "go native" in, was a French colony with a colonial community. He'd learnt about it from a Tahiti display at the World Fair in Paris. The Tahitian people were already becoming Westernised. There were plenty of photos of them, which Gauguin often used to paint from. He gave his paintings Tahitian titles, but could never speak the language properly. There's always an aspect of exotic tourism in these scenes, the artist availing himself of a supremely picturesque subject-matter, a gallery of girls sitting around dreamily in unselfconscious nakedness, among strange fruits and flowers and birds.
Impossible the plan may have been - how could Gauguin hope to shed his European perspectives and privileges - but you can't say he doesn't try. These aren't just pictures of Tahiti dreams for the Paris market. They're making a real effort to be Tahitian pictures, to engage with Tahitian mythology and visual imagery. In Gauguin's work we can see an attempt at something that has never really happened: "world painting", an art that would fuse European and non- European cultures and beliefs. …