The news about the recent acquisition by the Getty Museum of a rare painting by Paul Gauguin came as a welcome surprise. Though this work is known to specialists, it has rarely been seen, as its Swiss owner was very reluctant to loan it out for exhibitions. Even in reproduction, it is absolutely striking, not only because of the beautifully preserved colors, but also because of the strangeness of its subject. Painted by Gauguin during his first trip to Tahiti, it shows what appears to be the severed head of a man placed on a white pillow in the center of the composition. No one knows for sure whether this head is a portrait of a real person or a symbolic image of a Tahitian man. It is the first painting by Gauguin acquired by the Getty, thus filling an obvious gap in the museum's collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Late works by Gauguin of such quality come on the market very rarely, and it took years of delicate negotiation and untold millions of dollars before this masterpiece joined three other works by Gauguin owned by the Getty: two drawings and one sculpture.
After a light cleaning by museum conservators, the new painting will go on display in early April and will be shown alongside the Gauguin sculpture depicting a man's head with horns. There is some speculation that the sculpture might even be a self-portrait, as it bears a certain resemblance to the artist. But what intrigues me personally are the parallels between this painting and another sculpture by Gauguin, a darkly colored stoneware portrait of a woman from Martinique which is currently on view at the Getty Villa as part of the exhibition The Color of Life.
I wonder, what would it take to move this stoneware sculpture from the Getty Villa in Malibu to the Getty Center in Brentwood? The piece is on loan from the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, and a friendly call to this museum might get permission to extend the loan of the sculpture for another month or two. Just imagine seeing the newly acquired painting exhibited next to not one but two Gauguin sculptures. Surely, it's nearly impossible to cut through all that red tape on such short notice, but why not dream? And, as long as we're dreaming, here is another one...Why not try to organize an exhibition of Gauguin works from various southern California museums such as LACMA, the Hammer, the Norton Simon and the Getty? It would not only be a crowd-pleaser, but it would also show the possibilities for collaboration among local cultural institutions. Meanwhile, I allowed myself the indiscretion of putting the three above-mentioned works by Gauguin together in a virtual exhibition which you can view by visiting the Art Talk page on the KCRW website.
You may remember that a few months ago, another work by Gauguin was in the news, but it was for all the wrong reasons. The ceramic sculpture of a faun belonging to the Chicago Art Institute was discovered to be a fake, manufactured not very long ago by crafty British forgers. Looking at its reproduction, I'm struck by its obvious falseness but, hey, it's easy to be smart in hindsight.
Seventy years ago, everyone in the museum world was duped by the skillful forger Van Meegeren and his supposed discovery of Vermeer paintings. Today, you look at those so-called Vermeers and laugh at the improbability that anyone could be fooled so easily. But that was not the first and I'm sorry to say, not the last time that museum experts will have to eat humble pie.
Banner image: Details of Paul Gauguin's Arii Matamoe (The Royal End), Head with Horns, and Head of a Woman from Martinique