When Paul Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in 1891 sporting long hair and a wide-brimmed hat, the French, post-impressionist painter expected a culture that the West had largely left untainted. But the locals he met, who called him “taata vahine” (man-woman), weren’t noble savages. “From his experience in the merchant marine, Gauguin was too well traveled to not have expected some colonial rule and resulting changes in Tahiti,” says Allison Perelman, an Art Institute of Chicago research associate. “However, the extent to which the island had been Westernized did shock him, and living in the capital, Papeete, he felt that he almost might as well have been back in Paris.” Hoping to encounter indigenous culture, Gauguin was dismayed to see the ways missionaries — both Catholic and Protestant — had shaped the culture. That’s a narrative that surfaces several times in the Art Institute’s exhibit “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” (through Sept. 10). In “Merahi metua no Tehamana” (“Tehamana Has Many Parents, or the Ancestors of Tehamana,” 1893), the woman wears a high-collared dress “typical of the sort imposed by missionaries on the local population,” notes the catalog. “Emblems of native Tahitian religion had long been banned on the island by missionaries.” Missionaries’ restrictions also are alluded to in “Tahitian Women” (or “On the Beach,” 1891) and “Parahi te marae” (“The Sacred Mountain,” 1892). In the latter, Gauguin imagined structures of outdoor altars, which “had been destroyed by the Christian missionaries,” per the catalog. But when Dominic Colonna, a theology professor at Lewis University in Romeoville, first saw the exhibition and read the wall labels about Gauguin’s interest in the pre-Christian rather than what missionaries had tainted, he was amused. “I kind of laughed out loud,” he said. The show, and its exploration of the ways that Gauguin created sort-of collages in his works drawing upon symbolism from Buddhist, Catholic and Polynesian traditions, struck Colonna as very timely. “It made me think of a theological movement today — whether it’s associated with identity politics or postcolonial theology — the kind of idea that people glorify or romanticize individual cultures,” he says. “What we encounter is an idiosyncratic juxtaposition of symbols which suggests a highly personal spirituality that incorporates objects and ideas that please Gauguin,” Colonna noted on the Lewis University website. He added that Gauguin sought to create “what he believed were elements of a coherent and personally meaningful spirituality.” That spiritual-but-not-religious identification that Colonna sees in Gauguin’s art was how nearly one-fifth of respondents self-identified in a 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report. The spirituality that emerges from Gauguin’s work in the exhibition is both highly personal and often enigmatic. Five years after Robert Louis Stevenson published “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Gauguin depicted himself twice in “Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ” (1890-1891). In the foreground, the French post-Impressionist painter appears in three-quarter view. Over his right shoulder, Gauguin represented his own 1889 painting “Yellow Christ,” and over his left, a ceramic figure holds a thumb to its lips — a grotesque self-portrait. The artist likely thought of this double self-portrait as an exploration of his “dual artistic identity as both martyr and devil,” notes an exhibit wall label. Raised Catholic in Paris and in Peru, Gauguin would liken his art to Christ’s parables, noted Perelman. “Gauguin — who wasn’t above comparing himself to Christ or art making to a god-like ability — believed that in his own time there were only a select few who could understand his art,” she said. When Gauguin visited and then moved to Tahiti in his 40s, he didn’t translate the Tahitian titles of his works and “left it for his audience to decipher,” Perelman said. There are a good deal of religious references to decipher in the exhibition. “Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)” (1888), which portrays nearly 10 people in the foreground and the Genesis wrestling match set against an orange-red background in the top right corner, shows Breton women imagining the content of a sermon they are hearing. (see page 14) “For me, the landscape and the fight only exist in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon,” Gauguin wrote to Vincent van Gogh in a letter. The work is “puzzling and mysterious,” notes the National Galleries of Scotland, which owns the piece. It adds that Gauguin twice tried to donate the painting to churches in Brittany, but both attempts were “firmly rejected.” And “Te nave nave fenua (Delightful Land)” (c. 1892), in the collection of Musée de Grenoble, represents pre-fall Eve in a pose that Gauguin based upon a carved figure from an Indonesian Buddhist temple, of which he owned a photograph. Another work, “Nave nave moe (Sweet Dreams; Sacred Spring)” (1894), at St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, shows a woman holding an apple seated beside another woman, who is haloed: “Tahitian representations of the Virgin Mary and Eve the temptress,” notes the Art Institute catalog. “This amalgam of Polynesian folklore and religious ceremony with various other influences, from Christian theology to Indonesian religious symbols, forms a type of symbiotic mythology that characterizes the artist’s oeuvre,” the catalog adds. To Perelman, Gauguin never dismissed his Catholic upbringing or beliefs, though he objected to any institution, including the church, trying to dictate how he lived his life. At the end of his life, Gauguin wrote “Esprit Moderne et le Catholicisme” (The Modern Mind and Catholicism, 1897-8), in which he contended with “his conflicting relationship with religion.” “Hopefully visitors interested in the intersections of art and faith will recognize that his all-embracing-yet-ever-questioning approach to religion applied to his approach to art making as well,” Perelman said.