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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

10. In which the Getty rearranges its storage

Updated: May 26, 2020

Last week the Parisian daily Le Figaro announced that the Getty Museum had downgraded a sculpture previously attributed to Paul Gauguin to "artist unknown." The sandalwood sculpture had been taken off view and put into storage. "A hard blow for the Getty," announced the article with only a whiff of schadenfreude.

The museum purchased Head with Horns in 2002 from Wildenstein and Company in Paris for something between 3 and 5 million dollars, at the time the highest price ever paid for one of Gauguin's sculptures. CNN reports that Wildenstein had purchased the sculpture from "an unnamed private collection in Switzerland." The horned head had surfaced for the first time in decades in an exhibition on Le Sculpture des peintres at the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence; so certain was the museum of the Gauguin attribution that it was the cover image for the catalog.

The work is unsigned and bears no artist's mark. Gauguin never mentioned it in his letters home from Tahiti or the Marquesas, and in his lifetime, it was never exhibited with any of his other works. But an image of the sculpture appears in several works by Gauguin beginning in the late 1890s:

(L: Gauguin’s drawing Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (around 1900), Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence; R: Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit, private collection, image © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Right? It's unmistakable. Notice the statue's forehead, lips, cheeks. The competition for which image is creepiest is fierce. Any of them could fill a theorist's word count.

And there are photographs of the work pasted into one of the artist's notebooks:

Here it is, in all its sepia glory, two slightly different photographs pasted on a page where PG also pasted a photo of a native woman and did some unsettling watercolor doodling.

Gauguin sometimes worked in wood; for instance, take a look at this one, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington:

It looks familiar, right? The horns, the textured business around the forehead, the deep set eyes.

The evidence all seems convincing. Gauguin sculpted devils. Gauguin drew, sketched, printed, engraved images of devils. Here's a statue of a devil that looks exactly like the ones Gauguin reproduced.

Therefore, Gauguin made this devil.

Ah. But.

It turns out that an amateur photographer, a Frenchman named Jules Agostini, took part in an expedition to Tahiti in the 1890s. The expedition stopped in 1894 at the Marquesas islands, where Agostini set up his camera and took a few photos. As one does.

And there he is. Our devil. Seen and photographed by Jules Agostini in the Marquesas in 1894--while Gauguin was in Paris trying to sell paintings and drum up passage fare to the South Seas.

Gauguin couldn't have made the sculpture, because the sculpture already existed when he was on the far side of the world. He returned to Tahiti in the summer of 1895 and met Agostini. That's when Gauguin acquired the photographs that he pasted into his notebook, and when he first saw the image that would surface several years later in his work.

So what changed?

Research. Research changed the attribution. The Getty hired a new director of its sculpture department, Anne-Lise Desmas, in 2008. She thought that something about the sculpture seemed a little off. Over the course of nearly a decade of moving the puzzle pieces around, Desmas and her colleagues worked out the dates and the places and the photos. What I have done in a few words has only been possible because I followed their trail.

Why does this recent rearrangement of the Getty's collection matter for us?

First, it reminds us of the unholy alliance between art dealers (like Wildenstein and Company) and art experts (like the Wildenstein-Plattner Foundation, which is preparing a catalogue raisonnée of Gauguin's sculpture. As Martin Bailey, journalist and expert on the post-Impressionist art market, put it in The Art Newspaper:

That's the baseline: that the people selling are also the people authenticating--so if they sell something important and valuable to a prestigious museum like the Getty, it builds their own prestige.

And second, it reminds us that there while we may have put together the edges of the puzzle, we haven't yet pieced together all of the center. And the pieces are small. To sort out this reattribution took studying objects from the collections of multiple museums around the world, pulling up images next to each other, creating timelines, drawing connections, moving the puzzle pieces around until they clicked into place.

Knowledge changes.

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