THE world of artist Paul Gauguin throbs with color, as visitors to the ultimate Gauguin exhibit, now at the National Gallery of Art, will find. The French Post-Impressionist, whose exotic life spun him halfway around the world - to South America, Panama, Martinique, Tahiti, and Scandinavia - has found safe harbor for his art in this magnificent show. It explodes with color so bright it might have been mixed with the sun: from the chrome yellow sky and blue trees of an early Arles landscape, to the vermilion red earth and violet apple tree of Brittany (in ``Jacob Wrestling with the Angel''), to the rose sand and lavender horses of a beach in Tahiti.
``The Art of Paul Gauguin'' is an unprecedented show involving three world-famous museums and an international roundup of Gauguin treasures, 377 works of art from 135 lenders in the collection. In this National Gallery show, which begins the tour, 241 objects from 113 lenders are displayed.
``This is a great international undertaking; loans have come from every continent of the world except Antarctica,'' says J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, which is presenting this show, along with the Art Institute of Chicago and the R'eunion des Mus'ees Nationaux.
Mr. Brown notes that the exhibition would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Soviet Union, which holds the world's greatest Gauguin collection in the Hermitage and Pushkin Museums and has lent them for the first time since 1906. The Soviet Union is itself planning a later Gauguin show, he says.
While the National Gallery has presented such hit shows as ``Matisse in Nice,'' which have focused on one segment of a great artist's career, the scope and depth of this exhibit are unparalleled.
``We are taking the bull by the horns this time, and doing the complete survey of an artist's work in all media,'' says Brown. ``And the result is the most comprehensive work on the artist ever assembled.''
The show will be at the gallery's East Wing until July 31; at the Art Institute of Chicago Sept. 17-Dec. 11; and at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris Jan. 10-April 20, 1989.
The impact of Gauguin's art may startle even those familiar with the controversial life and work of the artist. Films about Gauguin range from the Somerset Maugham version of the painter's life in ``The Moon and Sixpence'' to the portrait of his friendship with Vincent van Gogh in ``Lust for Life'' or ``Wolf at the Door,'' the recent film starring Donald Sutherland as Gauguin. A new documentary on Gauguin's life will be telecast by the Public Broadcasting Service during this exhibition's tour.
``The Art of Paul Gauguin'' encompasses the full spectrum of his work: painting, sculpture, ceramics, and graphic arts. It is the first exhibit to do so since the Gauguin memorial show in Paris in 1906, which was seen by those giants Matisse and Picasso.
THAT exhibit ``utterly changed the course of modern art,'' according to Richard Brettell, one of the show's curators, formerly with the Art Institute of Chicago and now director of the Dallas Museum of Art. The curators' team from the three museums included the National Gallery's Charles Stuckey; the Mus'ee d'Orsay's director, Fran,coise Cachin, and Claire Fr`eches-Tory; and special consultant Peter Zegers.
They decided, says Mr. Brettell, that they ``were going to do an exhibition which was not about the life of Paul Gauguin, a life we know a good deal about, mostly in romantic and mythological form..., but as a total artist rather than a a painter.''
Brettell says the team saw ``virtually every object ever made by Gauguin, no matter where it is now, because we wanted to avoid an exhibition chosen from reproductions.'' They also read the vast bibliography of works on Gauguin to re-evaluate his place in art. Their three-year study has resulted in a scholarly 519-page catalog which, at six pounds, is stuffed with lavish color illustrations. Brown says, ``I think it's going to become the classic work on Gauguin on everyone's shelf.''
One of the show's curators, Ms. Cachin, says the show is the ``cr`eme de la cr`eme'' of Gauguin. She adds, ``I know all his things separately, but the fact of looking at them on the walls [of this exhibit] adds strength to the artist. The unity and the strength is much more obvious now than before.''
Despite the decision to spotlight Gauguin the artist, rather than the legend, Gauguin's own tumultuous life sometimes eclipses his art and cannot be separated from it. Belinda Thomson writes in her book ``Gauguin'' that all through his life the artist ``remembered his brief childhood spell in Peru as a brilliantly colourful, haunting paradise,'' a paradise he later recaptured in his great Tahitian paintings.
Orphaned in his teens, he became a sailor, then a stockbroker, abandoning that financial security for his growing passion for paintings and supporting himself as a canvas salesman, poster hanger, train inspector, and Panama Canal worker.
Eventually he also abandoned his Danish wife, Mette, and their five children for his art; he was driven, his wife said, by ``ferocious egotism.''
Gauguin saw himself, however, as a martyr-artist, a noble savage and rebel outside the polished French society in which he wanted to succeed. A spiritual quest runs like a current through his Symbolist work, even in his later hedonistic and pagan phase, from his series of paintings of ``The Yellow Christ'' and ``Christ in the Garden of Olives'' (with Gauguin's own face) to his late Tahitian masterpiece, ``D'O`u venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? O`u allons-nous?'' (Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?).
Brettell predicts, ``The only problem that a one-time visitor to this exhibition will have is that they'll realize Gauguin is like Mt. Everest: You can climb and climb and climb, and you never reach the top.''