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Art Islands: the great art escape

Islands and art make for good companions. Lounge looks at three islands worth a trip for art aficionados

Paul Gauguin’s ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Paul Gauguin’s ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Islands fascinate psychologists and anthropologists for a reason. How their geographical isolation can shape cultures and the psyche of island dwellers provides good fodder for many research studies. Far-flung islands even serve as ideal spots for spas, yoga retreats and artistic residencies, their peaceful seclusion holding the potential to awaken some creative or restorative energy within the wearied brain of a mainlander.

Imagine, then, the endorphin rush possible on islands that come with the added bonus of art. Lounge shortlists three islands which, aside from the sun, sand and palm trees, are known for their artistic connections, historic artefacts, art-filled museums, galleries and beaches. The harmonious amalgam of landscape, nature, art and architecture can soothe anyone battered by the daily grind of a mundane city life.

Mont Orohena in Tahiti. Photo: iStockphoto
Mont Orohena in Tahiti. Photo: iStockphoto

Going Gauguin in Tahiti

Imagine a diagonal stretching from California to New Zealand over the South Pacific Ocean. The 118 islands of French Polynesia dissect it somewhere in the middle, and Tahiti is the largest of them. Seasoned travellers swear by its Elysian charm, unspoilt landscape and black-sand beaches. But art enthusiasts flock there for reasons quite different.

Paul Gauguin was a 19th century post-Impressionist French artist whose finest works were inspired by the island and its people. In 1891, he left behind his wife and five children in Paris and reached Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. He wanted to leave “everything that is artificial and conventional", reportedly in search of a purer way of living among Tahitian tribespeople. While his questionable lifestyle and relationships with tribal women are a subject of controversy among academics (some allude to his crypto-colonial mindset of considering himself superior to tribespeople), the profound effect of Tahitian people and culture on his work cannot be understated.

Walking under the palm trees in Punaauia, in the suburb of Papeete, you can absorb the landscape that inspired Gauguin’s masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Tahiti and its people are at its centre, representing for Gauguin—perhaps mistakenly—primitive purity. He maintained, “I shall never do anything better." The three stages of the canvas (read right to left) visually capture the essence of life’s biggest questions, depicting a newborn on the right, daily existence in the middle and a morbid old woman in the left corner.

At the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, about 15km from Papeete, revel in the sight of rare Polynesian wood sculptures. When 18th century Christian missionaries first saw these paganistic pieces, they set about destroying them.

Next, visit the world’s only museum dedicated to pearls, the Robert Wan Pearl Museum. Founded by the pearl magnate Robert Wan, it displays the world-renowned Tahitian black pearls, discusses related myths, and the processes used to farm them.

For its paradisiacal beauty, connection with Gauguin, and a varied landscape that combines mountains, forests and beaches, Tahiti is one island that could deservedly top the most stringently pruned bucket lists.

Trip planner: Fly to Auckland, New Zealand, and take a connecting flight to Tahiti. The island has city buses, taxis, and cars available on rent. From big-chain hotels to home-stays, there are accommodation options for all budgets and tastes. For details, visit

Naoshima’s hallmark Benesse House Museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Art island of Japan: Naoshima

Dubbed Japan’s “art island", Naoshima today ranks among places that are considered giants of art tourism: Florence, Venice and Paris. A sleepy fishing island till the 1980s, Naoshima’s transformation began when Soichiro Fukutake, the billionaire chairman of Fukutake Publishing (now Benesse Corp.), bought land there in 1987. He commissioned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, noted for his minimalism and love for reinforced concrete, to build a number of museums and art galleries on the island to house Fukutake’s private art collection.

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Yellow Pumpkin’. Photo: Flickr/Sarahlbishop

Over three decades, one building after another rose—each a work of art designed by Ando—with a sprinkling of sculptural installations by famous modern artists. Three areas stand out. The first is Miyanoura, the largest settlement, with its ferry port being the gateway to the island. Yayoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin on the pier welcomes ferries as they stream into the nearby terminal. Her other work, Yellow Pumpkin, is an unofficial mascot for the island. It’s located near Benesse House Museum, where many of the island’s famous buildings are located. It is, uniquely, a museum which accommodates a hotel, where each room was designed by Ando. Guests have special after-hour access to installations. Works by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, David Hockney and Alberto Giacometti grace its corridors and outdoor spaces, with no velvet ropes or barriers around them. According to Fukutake, whose distaste for white cube galleries is well known, this is the pure way of experiencing art.

A 20-minute walk from the Benesse is the Chichu Art Museum, where the centrepiece is one of the gargantuan paintings from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series. Apart from its collection, Chichu’s iconic architecture has its own worshippers. Designed by Ando to be built mostly underground, in order to cause least visible disturbance to the beautiful surrounding landscape, its cleverly placed skylights and open courtyards craftily belie its subterranean location.

The third major site is the charming village of Honmura, where the Art House Project has seen different artists converting abandoned buildings into stand-alone artworks. The building most flocked to is Minamidera, which houses an immersive installation by American artist James Turrell. Visitors enter a seemingly pitch-black room, and, as their eyes adjust, they notice the dimly-lit artworks, perhaps highlighting the fallibility of the senses. The Ando Museum, also in Honmura, charts the history of Naoshima and Ando’s own practice.

The whole island is one huge piece of art. At just 15 sq. km, you can walk from end to end in an hour. The island offers a staggering contrast with Japanese megacities known for their frenetic pace. On it, the boundaries between museums, art, nature and architecture blur beautifully. Whether it’s a blueprint of a futuristic utopia for art travel, only time will tell. But for complete artistic immersion in serene seclusion, the charms of Naoshima will be unrivalled for quite a while.

Trip planner: Take a Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Okayama, and a local train to Uno. From there, a 20-minute ferry ride leads to Naoshima. Stay options vary from the expensive Benesse House Museum to the expansive yurts (portable round tents) by the beach. A comprehensive guide to everything from art galleries, stay options, opening hours and bookings can be found at

The remains of the Palace of Minos at Knossos. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Minoan Crete

More than a century ago, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans conducted his famous dig on the southernmost Greek island of Crete, coming up with a monumental discovery that shed light on prehistoric Europe. Intrigued by previous excavation attempts and a desire to find the cradle of European civilization, he bought the land for excavation at Knossos and uncovered a Bronze Age civilization that had flourished from 2000-1200 BC. He named it “Minoan" after the mythical Greek king Minos, of Minotaur fame. Today, archaeologists sometimes remember him as the “Indiana Jones of Crete", as his methods were more fast than fastidious.

While today’s excavation pace would be one toothbrush swipe at a time, he developed a prize system where he paid a bonus to the group of diggers that first reached Minoan levels. Sure enough, archaeologists today believe that in his haste he wiped clean any record of the Roman layer above it. As one walks around the majestic Palace of Minos today in Knossos, what’s visible is a reconstruction, a result of guesswork by Evans in the early 1900s. It is considered the “first European civilization" and one which had the first paved road and first “flush toilet" in Europe. Among the first written scripts of the world, two were discovered here. “Linear A" still hasn’t been deciphered, while “Linear B" is understood to be an early form of Greek.

The bull-leaper sculpture.

Falling between Europe, Africa and the Near East, Crete has been shaped by different cultures. One can see the splendid engineering feats at the major Minoan sites of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia or Zakros; the Roman agora and aqueducts at Gortyn; Byzantine churches at Agios Nikolaos, near Crete’s capital Heraklion; or the Turkish monuments at Crete’s second largest city, Chania.

The Minoan snake goddess
The Minoan snake goddess

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum houses the largest collection of Minoan art in the world and the riveting frescoes from the palace rooms at Knossos are displayed here. The most striking artefacts that best represent the Minoan visual culture are the phantasmagorical snake goddess figurines, bare-breasted and holding snakes with uplifted arms, or the totemic bronze sculptures of athletic men grabbing a wild bull by the horns and doing a somersault over it, probably referencing a deadly ancient sport. The function of the objects remains a mystery.

Trip planner: Fly to Heraklion via Athens. You can rent a car or use public transport, which includes taxis and buses. For details for itineraries and bookings, visit

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