It was on his 43rd birthday, 7 June 1891, that Paul Gauguin first glimpsed Tahiti. It must have been a wonderful sight: the extinct volcano, Mount Orohena, which dominates the upper island, the coral reef that enclosed a sparkling lagoon, scarlet flame trees on the hillside, a dream of palm trees and hibiscus flowers on the semi-circular beach, a few bamboo huts, fishermen in canoes, women by the water's edge dressed in shapeless flowery dresses. As he was rowed ashore from the good ship Vire, it must have seemed like Paradise. Only one thing spoiled the atmosphere as he walked up the beach: the islanders were laughing at him.
"He attracted the stares of the natives, provoked their surprise and also their jeers," wrote a French naval officer. "What focused attention was his long salt-and-pepper hair, falling in a sheet on his shoulders from beneath a vast, brown felt hat with a large brim like a cowboy's."
Convinced that he must be a debased French version of the androgynous mahu that is semi-sacred in Polynesian society, the islanders called him taata-vahine, or "man-woman". Oblivious to the fact that one of the greatest painters in history had just stepped ashore, they jeered at him as a big girl's blouse.
The first Western visitors to Tahiti had walked up the same beach barely a century earlier – and the wonders they encountered became the stuff of myth. First came HMS Dolphin, under Captain Samuel Wallis, in 1767. He later reported how native boats surrounded his ship; some canoes carried women "who played a great many droll tricks".
The following spring, L'Etoile and La Boudeuse, two ships under the captaincy of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, made landfall and stayed for nine days. Bougainville painted a vivid picture of the sex-crazed island "goddesses", saying the Tahitians "pressed us to choose a woman and come on shore with her; and their gestures, which were not ambiguous, denoted in what manner we should form an acquaintance with her."
Few loose women are in evidence in 2010 at Papeete airport, after a gruelling 20-hour flight: London to Paris; a 12-hour marathon from Paris to Los Angeles; a two-hour stopover; then a final eight hours to the jewel of French Polynesia. When you arrive, the ukulele band at Arrivals, and the girl who inserts a tiare flower behind your ear, almost compensate for the wait at passport control.
I've come to Tahiti to follow Gauguin's search for tropical simplicity and authentic primitive art. He never forgot his childhood in Lima with his mother's family, and called himself "the savage from Peru", enjoying the cachet it gave him to be outside, or beyond, the confines of bourgeois society. In his twenties, he tried civilian life in a stockbroking firm, but when the French stock market collapsed in 1882, he had to choose between banking and art. He chose art.
His Danish wife took the children to live in Copenhagen, and Gauguin, from 1886, became more and more embroiled in landscapes of rural simplicity, shading into primitivism. From Brittany, he moved on to Panama "to live there like a savage", then to the French Caribbean island of Martinique. A vision met his eyes: he saw how vivid colours, the luxuriant jungle and the natural beauty of the people could transform his painting, and put him beyond the soft-focus prettiness of the Impressionists.
Showing his work alongside the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, he checked out the art in the foreign pavilions and began considering leaving France in search of a "truer" life abroad. The French colonies of Polynesia appealed to him, though in a romanticised way. "I long for the day (soon perhaps) when I'll flee into the woods on an island in Oceania, there to live a life of ecstasy, peace and art," he wrote to his wife. "Far from this European struggle for money, in Tahiti I'll be able, in the silence of the beautiful tropical night, to listen to the soft murmuring music of the heart."
His first impressions disappointed him. He found Papeete was already too Westernised, with Catholic and Protestant missions running the place, too much government, too much bureaucracy, too much France. He enjoyed the dances in the park beside the Cercle Militaire, or military club, where the expatriates drank. He discovered that up-country girls who drifted into town were as sexually accommodating as their ancestors – only now they made you pay for it. This was a mistake: he was shunned by polite French society from whom he hoped to secure portrait commissions.
Drive around Papeete today and you can share some of his disappointment. The shaggy green mountains are beautiful, the sea sparkles and the heat is intense, but the town is redolent of neglect. At Venus Point, where Gauguin's ship dropped anchor, picnickers on the volcanic black sand are deafened by loud rock music blasting from speakers. A monument to HMS Bounty stands beside a breadfruit tree, but the observatory where Captain Cook once tried to watch the Transit of Venus is desecrated.
The main monument here is a lighthouse, built in 1867. The architect was the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose words adorn a plaque on the wall: "Great were the feelings of emotion as I stood with my mother by my side and we looked upon the edifice designed by my father when I was 16."
The centre of town is the harbour, where the ferry Paul Gauguin sails to the tourists' favourite islands, Moorea and Bora Bora. The waterfront is bright and bustling as you stroll around shopping for a pareu (the ubiquitous South Sea sarong) or black pearls. There's a lively market off the Boulevard Pomare, where flower crowns and tropical fruits compete for your attention with knick-knacks and tattoo exponents. When you're flagging in the heat, head for the Parc Bougainville and stroll amid its lush foliage. Gauguin's favourite restaurant was called Renvaye's in the Rue de la Petite Polonge, which has since been renamed the Rue Paul Gauguin.
Beyond that there's little to see in Papeete. You grab a car and ride around the upper circle of this hour-glass island, Tahiti Nui (the lower circle is Tahiti Iti, where few people go, except to surf). It's a round trip of 100km or so, a lovely drive past churches painted in nursery pastels like highly coloured cakes. Yes, there are too many banks, petrol stations, pizzerias, greenhouses, graffiti, roadside rubbish and ruined cars in ditches. But the coast is dreamily beautiful: you spend ages simply gazing at the Pacific waves breaking on the coral reef. At Papenoo you stop to watch the surfers showing off their moves – some use surf paddles and look as if they're sweeping a watery floor.
In July 1891, Gauguin set off from Papeete in a horse-drawn public coach, to find somewhere more authentic to live. After a false start, he settled in Mataiea on the south coast, a village 45km from the capital, with a new girlfriend, Titi. A wealthy farmer offered the artist his European-style house; Gauguin turned it down in favour of a bamboo hut. There he stayed for 18 months, from September 1891 to March 1893, painting, sculpting and experiencing mood swings from blissful happiness to gloomy introspection.
Unable to buy or beg the natives' fruit and vegetables, he lived on tinned corned beef, claret and absinthe. Instead of a life of unbridled freedom among luscious bare-breasted maidens, he had run-ins with the local policeman, who objected to his bathing naked in the river. Titi left him, to be replaced by his first big love, Teha'amana. He started to paint local women (in their sensible Sunday frocks) and was inspired by a young man called Jotefa, who recurs in the paintings, seen on beaches with a canoe or fishing net, a Polynesian youth reimagined as a Greek ephebe.
By March 1892, he'd finished 30 paintings including his most controversial work, Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching), with its depiction of a naked young girl lying on a bed, probably more alarmed by the artist than by the figure of Death behind her.
A year later, Gauguin returned to Paris to exhibit his Tahitian works at the Durand-Ruel gallery. It received, as they say, mixed reviews. The Parisiens found the colours too strident, the subjects too barbaric and ugly. Pissarro accused Gauguin of "plundering the savages of Oceania". That, and a tortured relationship with a partner called "Annah the Javanese" persuaded him to leave France forever. He was back in Papeete in September 1895, appalled to find it was even more "civilised" than before. He settled in Punaauia on the west coast, 16km from the capital, with a new girlfriend, Pahura, who was 14. He built a huge warehouse in which he executed his masterpiece Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?, which was exhibited in Paris in 1898. On Tahiti, the rebarbative artist took to picking fights in the local press with the government and the Protestant Church. Court cases were threatened. It became clear that he needed to move on.
Neither Mataiea nor Punaauia today offers many signs that Gauguin once lived there. The former is more promising for the Gauguin-chaser. Guides will take you to the spot on which (they swear) he must have stood with his easel to paint, say, the dark mountain, flowering trees and purple path of Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), his blasphemous study of a haloed Tahitian Virgin and Child. The nearest you get to the site of his house is a small school heralded by a sign saying "2+2 = 4".
A couple of kilometres east of Mateiea you find the Jardin Botanique: 137 hectares of flora introduced by Harrison Smith, an American botanist who, as well as many plant species, unwittingly brought mosquitoes to the island. By the waterside, the Gauguin restaurant is a riot of colour, with shocking pink flowers, gigantic fronds in giant tubs and old-fashioned flowery tablecloths. Nearby, the Gauguin Museum has seen better days. The exhibits are dimly lit, the explanatory cards (some in English, some not) perfunctory. Still, there are reproductions of Gauguin's letters to his long-suffering wife ("I am a man of two natures, of the Indian and of the sensitive civilised man"), maps, photographs of his fellow artists in Brittany and a flyer from the 1889 Universal Exhibition.
A final room displays the artist's works in miniature – a dazzling array of rich colours, glowing greens, blues, reds and golds – and tells you in which of the world's museums, from Washington to Moscow, each now hangs. There's one conspicuous absence: Tahiti itself. There used to be 27 original Gauguin paintings on the island. Now there are none.
One leaves Tahiti with mixed feelings. The five-star Le Meridien is a treat to stay in. But despite the tropical sunshine and the sparkling sea inside its calm reef, there's something a little harsh and uncongenial about Tahiti. And it's crazily expensive. Taking a taxi into Papeete V Ccosts a king's ransom. Order a meal in a halfway-decent restaurant and you're staring at £20 for a main course. The breakfast buffet in most hotels is £25 to £30. Wherever you go, money spills through your fingers like fine sand. The locals shake their heads and say they know it's bad for tourism, but what can they do?
On 16 September 1901, Gauguin left Tahiti for good, to travel to the Marquesas islands, 1,200km further into the Pacific. He hoped to find there something closer to his tropical dreams – and finish his long search for true Polynesian art. On Hiva Oa, he bought two plots of land from the Catholic church and built his dream house, of woven bamboo roofed with coconut leaves. He called it the Maison du Jouir. "I have everything a modest artist could wish," he wrote to a friend. "A huge studio with a bed tucked away in one corner. A hammock for taking a siesta in the shade, cooled by breezes from the sea, 300 metres away, blowing gently through the coconut palms..."
This is where he had his final productive period, painting some of his finest works, especially Primitive Tales and And The Gold of Their Bodies. This is where he wrote Avant et Apres (Before and After), his boastful, evasive and sex-obsessed autobiography, off-puttingly subtitled "Idle thoughts of a Naughty Boy". This is also where he confronted the authorities and took the side of the islanders on such topics as whether the Marquesans could take their children out of government schools if they felt the children were being indoctrinated about their parents' "corrupt" ways. And this is where he reflected on his mad, rackety, impulsive life: almost every painting, drawing or sculpture he created in his two years here is an evocation of a work from his past.
I took a small plane and travelled three hours north-east of Tahiti to the island of Hiva Oa. It's a green jewel, the mountains spikier and more vertiginous than Tahiti's, the terrain rougher, the flowers more fiery-hued, the smell of frangipani more intense, the trees weighed down with fruit (especially the juicy carambola). My guide, Henry, showed me the island's main attraction: its dramatic collection of tiki, or Polynesian gods, in sacrificial fields where victims were beheaded, the head placed in a banyan "trophy tree" while the body was placed in a central pit and cooked, to be eaten by the tribe.
You can find Gauguin's grave in the Calvaire Cemetery, just outside Atuona town, a slab of red volcanic rock from the mountain, at the end of which a round black stone bears the words "Paul Gauguin 1903" in white paint. Nearby you can find the joint grave of Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer, and his girlfriend from Guadeloupe, Madly.
It's quite a coincidence that the two Gallic artists should have wound up at the same place. Brel, while sailing around the world in 1975, came upon Hiva Oa, fell in love with it, and built a small house on the hillside above Atuona a year later. He acquired a Beechcraft aeroplane called the Jojo and flew around the islands in it, sometimes flying medical emergencies to Papeete. He died from lung cancer in 1978; his last song was a celebration of "Les Marquises".
Atuona is the only town of note on Hiva Oa, and is a simple place. There's a modest general store on the site of the shop where Gauguin bought his food and wine; also the Make Make Snack Bar, a school, gendarmerie, tourist office and Catholic church from 1800 or so with a crucifix made of coconuts and a lovely rosewood Virgin and Child. And there's the Espace Cultural de Paul Gauguin, a grandly titled museum-cum-gallery. It's a lot swisher than the Gauguin Museum on Tahiti, but all the paintings are slightly off-centre reproductions. There's a treasure trove of his letters, an inventory of the objects discovered down a well after his death (mostly empty bottles and morphine syringes) and documents about the sale of his goods to creditors in Papeete. Out in the garden there's a full-size replica House of Pleasure for you to stand in. It displays no Gauguin memorabilia, or replica of his studio, but it was built on the site of the original Maison, and you can't stand in it without feeling his truculent, garlicky presence lurking there still.
Ask about the nightlife, the bars and the backstreet action on the island, and you'll be referred solely to the Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge, where everyone goes to carouse on Friday and Saturday nights. It's a handsome, modern and very expensive hotel that boasts 14 bungalows with pyramid roofs and walls of raffia. They are cool, simple and elegant, and as you sit in your planter's chair at dusk, sipping rum-drenched cocktails and reading The Moon and Sixpence to your partner, as geckos flicker between the rafter lights, you'll feel a pale approximation of Gauguin's melancholy freedom.
Those who knew him at the end of his life recall a tragic figure: "His legs were covered with bandages, and he wore the dress of a complete Maori. A coloured pareu about the hips, his torso covered with a Tahitian shirt, his feet nearly always bare, a student's cap of green cloth on his head." Syphilitic sores by now covered his legs. His eyesight was fading. He lived mostly on absinthe and morphine. It is perhaps unsurprising that his third "wife", a 14-year-old girl called Vaeoho, left him after giving birth to their daughter and didn't come back. A sad end for a man who spent his life chasing a dream of prelapsarian purity, failing to find it even in the tropics, but leaving the world a moving record of what he so passionately longed to find.
The Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern, London, runs from 30 September 2010 to 16 January 2011. Admission £13.50. See tate.org.uk
* The main approach from Europe is via LA, where Air Tahiti Nui (0844 482 1675; airtahitinui.com) stops en route from Paris.
* Luxury Holidays Direct (020-8774 7297; luxuryholidaysdirect.com) has a 10-day trip in the Society Islands taking in Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora from £2,999 per person. The price includes nine nights' B&B, flights from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic and Air Tahiti Nui and transfers; travel between 15 October-20 December 2010.
* Le Meridien Tahiti, Punaauia, Tahiti (00 689 470707; starwoodhotels.com). Doubles start at 21,239 French Pacific francs (£147), room only.
* Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl Lodge, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands (00 689 92 75 87; pearlresorts.com). Doubles start at 21,800 francs (£151), room only.
* Tahiti Tourism: 020-7367 0929; tahiti-tourisme.co.uk