Paul Gauguin: Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) from the suite Noa Noa (Fragrant Scent), 1893-94, woodcut, 14 by 8 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection.

"The reason I wanted to do this show," says Starr Figura, curator of "Gauguin: Metamorphoses," at New York's Museum of Modern Art, "was to tell a story that had not been told by MoMA, or anyone, really. Gauguin's prints mark a turning point in the history of the graphic arts."

MoMA's landmark exhibition (Mar. 8-June 8) gathers 150 works, all but 30 of them works on paper, which embody the major concerns of the artist from the time he took up printmaking after returning from sojourns in Brittany and the Caribbean in 1889 until his death in 1903 on Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas Islands. Three years in development, the show comprises works from myriad collections, public and private, in the U.S. and Europe. It includes many unique, rarely seen impressions of Gauguin's woodcuts and zincographs (a form of lithography), as well as watercolor monotypes and oil-transfer drawings, the latter an invention of the artist. Swipes of the hand impart a spontaneous, moody feel.

This is the largest exhibition ever to group Gauguin's prints in all mediums with his sculpture and ceramics. It is also MoMA's first monographic show on Gauguin. "The ‘metamorphoses' of the title," says Figura, "refer to how Gauguin's creative process involved his almost obsessively returning to a subject or a motif in a new work and a new medium, transforming it over time."

Gauguin restlessly sought the effective expression of unspoiled origins, an alternative to European civilization. He turned to non-Western sources for his blunt style of carving and drawing and for numerous motifs and subjects, becoming one of the earliest "primitivists" of the modernist era. Nowhere is the sense of mystery he sought better embodied than in his rough, shadowy works on paper.

"Gauguin's whole enterprise was about stripping away the civilized refinement of European art," explains Figura. "It's why he went to Tahiti—to find that unspoiled aesthetic." Famously, by the time Gauguin arrived in the South Pacific, his ideal no longer existed (if it ever had), as the fallout from colonization—poverty, alcoholism and prostitution—had taken hold. "In his works on paper, he creates an aesthetic that suggests a fiery light in the black, the embers of a fire before it goes out," says Figura.

Experimenting with woodcut, Gauguin inked the plates in various ways and used different papers to create numerous and varied effects. "Munch didn't make his own woodcuts until he saw Gauguin's," Figura said, "and Gauguin influenced the German Expressionists and Picasso." In the monotypes, there is a delicate veiling as Gauguin privileged the remnant impressions known as "ghosts."

"He could have used bright colors as he did in his paintings," says Figura, "but in the woodcuts his palette is different, with a glowing undertone of ocher, olive or brown. Once the show came together this quality became even more striking. It was as if he wanted the print to look like some sort of ancient artifact or cave painting. He was after that—the authentic, the primordial."

The show is unprecedented in the primacy it gives to prints. "This show inverts the proportions of a typical retrospective [of a historically significant artist]," said Figura. "Where you might have, say, 80 to 90 percent paintings and sculpture, and 10 to 20 percent everything else, this one is 80 percent works on paper, and 10 to 20 percent paintings and sculpture. It changes your focus."

Weirdly, the catalogue, with essays by Figura, Elizabeth C. Childs, Hal Foster and Erika Mosier, sports a painting on its cover, a failure of nerve, perhaps, on the part of the powers-that-be. Paintings have traditionally sold better to the public than prints.

Figura's aim, when she began her research three years ago, was "to see what Gauguin was doing in these highly experimental works. As I got more into it, I realized it opened a window onto his whole creative process, and showed him to be a much more experimental and multi-medium artist than I think most people realize." In an era when contemporary artists routinely leap the bounds of medium, "Gauguin: Metamorphoses" presents a fascinating precedent.