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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

44. Missing years

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Longtime readers may recall that the Gauguin catalogue raisonné for the years 1888-1903 was promised for the end of December 2020. Our friends at WPI released it in early May. I found out in appropriately digital fashion: through the WPI's post on Instagram. I nearly choked on my morning oatmeal. As with so many events that are promised and then delayed, the release had slipped into the category of someday. And yet there it was, flickering away in full color.

I responded to a few work emails, checked on student discussions, and then, when I had cleared an hour or so of obligations, I opened the site.

It records the years 1891-1903. Three years are missing, and they're the years most relevant to this project. I spluttered. I even carried my laptop into my husband's study and showed him the site so that he could commiserate.

The catalogue picks up when Gauguin took passage to Tahiti in March 1891 and follows him for the last twelve years of his life. The previous catalogue left him in Paris, a few days after Christmas in 1888, attending the execution of a man who had murdered his mistress. Gauguin had had an eventful December, what with his housemate Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear and all. The month had begun well. Gauguin, in Arles with Vincent since October, went to an exotic animals menagerie on the first Sunday of the month, to sketch the lions. Then a few of his paintings sold in Paris, one to Degas. But the rainy season set in, and Gauguin was cooped up inside the yellow house with Vincent, and things went downhill fast. Vincent suspected that Gauguin was secretly miserable and planning to move back to Paris; Gauguin was miserable and planning to move back to Paris. He decided to leave a few days before Christmas. The artists quarreled; Gauguin left the house; Vincent sliced off his ear. Gauguin summoned Theo. Theo took the next train. He stayed in Arles for less than twenty-four hours. He committed Vincent to the care of a local doctor, and then he and Gauguin went back to Paris on the overnight train. They arrived December 26. Gauguin went to stay with Schuffenecker and, thence, for an outing on the 28th to the prison of La Roquette. There the 2002 Catalogue raisonné left him.

I have been awaiting the drop of the rest of the catalogue since 2017. When I opened the link a few weeks ago, I expected mysteries to be revealed: in 2002, Sylvie Crussard and her team had promised that Louis Roy would figure in the next volumes. She wrote:

How would Madame Crussard "deal with" Louis Roy? Would she have found answers to the questions I've asked about Roy and Gauguin, how well, when, and where they knew each other? Would she have learned more about Léon Marseille, the dealer who brought Flowers and Fruit to market in 1923? I have often wondered, as I've worked on this project, what I would find when the next volumes were published. I've assumed that they would answer questions that I might not even know enough to ask.

And yet. Gauguin: 1891-1903. Where were the missing years?

The explanation was buried under the About this project tab on the website. In the early 2000s, the Wildenstein Institute had hired the American academic art historian Richard Brettell to work with Crussard on the next volumes of the Gauguin catalogue. The two scholars would judge which paintings entered the catalogue based on scholarship, archival research, and their own appraisals. Between them, they looked at hundreds of purported Gauguins as they prepared the volumes that would complete his career.

Brettell received a terminal diagnosis in 2017. WPI had shifted to a digital presence and was planning a digital version of the 1889-1903 years. But Brettell's time was precious and limited. "With the support of Mme Crussard and in a race against time, [WPI] prioritized helping Dr. Brettell to finalize his work on his portion of the project. For this reason, Mme Crussard's extensive scholarship on the earlier Breton period works (1889-1891) will be featured in the forthcoming and final installment of this project, to be released at a later date." Brettell died last summer. He was editing up until the end.

Earlier this week, I attended a webinar about the production of this all-digital catalogue. There was lots of talk about how to navigate it, where to find exhibition histories, and how the WPI staff worked out the order of the information in the catalogue entries. Sylvie Crussard joined the speakers from the Wildenstein offices in Paris: a birdlike elderly lady in a plain navy crew neck and a light brown hoodie. She sat in front of the camera at a table with the rest of the office behind her. If you've seen a French film or TV show in the last decade, you can imagine the space: an apartment built to the grand specifications of an earlier age remodeled and fitted out with cheap office furniture. Prompted by a few questions from the director of WPI, Mme Crussard spoke in fluent English. She talked about the paintings as though they were old friends that we all had in common. The boy with the flower. The girl with the straw hat. She went on for a quarter of an hour, explaining the history of the catalogues--who worked on it, when, how ideas had changed.

Paintings that she had once dismissed she later changed her mind about. For a long time in the 1990s and 2000s, she recalled, the assumption was that only the "big, beautiful" Gauguins were the real Gauguins. Any canvas whose aura was not life-altering would be dismissed. But that has changed. "It takes a long time to judge a painting," she said. A painting that she sees once, and then again after time has passed, may strike her differently. There may be one section that stands out, that connects to a sketch, a drawing, a moment in another file somewhere. The advantage of the digital catalogue is that it will be easier to update.

And so now we wait for the missing years, and we hope that Sylvie keeps taking her vitamins.

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