BEFORE his attempts to escape from ``the taint of civilized man'' by living in Tahiti in the 1890s, Paul Gauguin had first found inspiration for his art in Brittany. He loved this northwestern part of France, later saying: ``I find there the savage, the primitive. When my wooden shoes reverberate on this granite soil, I hear the muffled, heavy and powerful note I am seeking in painting.'' The setting, and the people he was among, had a considerable effect on his art. This contrasts with Degas, his peer. According to the dealer, Vollard, Degas rated Gauguin -- a rebellious, egocentric stockbroker-turned-artist -- ``very high.'' But he also reproached him ``for having gone to the ends of the earth to paint.''
``Cannot one paint just as well in the Batignolles as in Tahiti?'' he asked.
Painter of Parisian laundresses and backstage dancers, Degas certainly would have seen Tahiti as quite unnecessarily exotic and distant. Probably even Brittany's ``granite soil'' (since landscape did little for him either) would have prompted few echoes in his art.
But Gauguin found, or at least sought, in painting a form of escape, a new, releasing charge of primal feeling. He wrote: ``In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.''
This is what he expected to discover in the South Seas. It has been pointed out, however, that the Tahiti of his dreams had to remain largely a thing of dreams. The traditional beliefs of the people had ceased to predominate 50 or so years before his first arrival on the island -- a French colony not quite so untainted by civilized man as he had hoped -- and he even had to resort to reading books on the subject to bolster his imaginative encounter with old Tahitian culture.
Nevertheless, his times there -- he painted the picture shown here on his first visit in 1891 -- became the stuff of which legends and art are made. The potent, weighty ``note'' of his painting developed extraordinarily in the somnolent fragrance of Tahiti and encouraged him further away from the fresh naturalism of his contemporary French painters and their visual experiments. He sarcastically dubbed the Neo-Impressionists of the period ``petty young chemists who accumulate little dots.''
``Two Women on the Beach'' (on loan until June from the Louvre in Paris to the National Gallery in London) is a classic example of Gauguin's response as a painter to Tahiti, and to Tahitian women. In them he began to find the mystique he was looking for -- a dubious, fanciful commodity, perhaps, but given his own kind of authenticity.
He was a European artist, and the significance of his work was in the effect of a different culture on his Europeanism. He wasn't merely after the directness of the childlike. He wanted his art to be a matter of dreams and memories, enigma, and symbol -- abandoning ``reality'' for some strange, unspoken ``peace of mind.'' He often compared painting to sound, aiming to ``provoke thoughts as music provokes thoughts.'' His dreaming Tahitians were painted as though they were creatures of another world. If we see, perhaps, a certain kinship between these islanders and Degas's laundresses, with their resignation or indifference, to Gauguin they were ``Tahitian Eves'' with ``an indescribable something which is infinitely penetrating and mysterious.'' He invests them, or perceives in them, the ``muffled, heavy, and powerful note'' he wanted his art to evince -- something akin to his notion of Beethoven's music.
``Beethoven,'' he wrote, ``was cut off from everything, which is why in his work you get the impression of a musician living on his own planet.'' Tahiti, and the art he produced there, were the nearest Gauguin approached to his own planet.