25. On the expertise of Frenchmen in the tropics
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Faithful readers may recall that a few months ago experts at the Getty Center in Los Angeles changed their minds about the attribution of a sculpture. "Head with Horns" had presided over a gallery as a work by Paul Gauguin; earlier this year, based on new evidence, the sculpture went into storage as a fake or, maybe, just a mystery. There were exclamations of shock, and righteous nods of recognition, from all the usual suspects.
This week, the Washington Post dedicated an impressive number of column inches to an article about a man named Fabrice Fourmanoir: a 63 year old Frenchman who, to judge from the article's accompanying photos, has a predilection for white linen and Panama hats. He lives on the coast in Mexico and sells the occasional painting. It turns out that Fourmanoir was at least partly behind the suspicions around "Head with Horns." Fourmanoir lived in Tahiti for 25 years and, according to the Los Angeles Times, collected nineteenth-century Tahitian art. He staged a campaign over almost two decades to demonstrate that the Head was not a Gauguin. The Getty has been shy about giving Fourmanoir credit for his contributions. Here's what the LA Times wrote:
"The Getty released a statement that said its decision to change the “Head With Horns” attribution was based on 'scholarly research over recent years by Getty professionals and other experts in the field, including significant new evidence that was not available at the time of its acquisition.'
Now, Fourmanoir has come forward to question the attribution of three more paintings:
Fourmanoir thinks these paintings are forgeries commissioned by the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard after Gauguin's death in 1903. Vollard, Fourmanoir argues, wanted "to profit from a sudden surge in demand for Gauguin's work."
I'll spare us all a deep dive into the sales of Gauguin's works in Paris in the early 1900s. Let's leave it at: the market for paintings by Gauguin had been almost nonexistent in the years leading up to his death. In the years following, there was increased curiosity and a few sales. Hardly a surge. Vollard, who worked with, promoted, and occasionally swindled, a number of artists who are now household names, was Gauguin's primary promoter in those years. And it's possible that he commissioned fakes, and that these represent some of them. It's also possible that these are the real deal.
Fourmanoir's evidence, according to the Washington Post, rests partly on gaps in the provenance of these paintings and partly on their look and feel. All three were painted on the far side of the world from Paris. All three took some time to make their way to France. If Fourmanoir has dug into Gauguin's letters and Vollard's stockbooks from this period, the Post doesn't mention that. The article emphasizes instead Fourmanoir's visual analysis of the paintings. The women in the paintings "lack 'the charisma' of Polynesian women," he told the Post. Fourmanoir is the veteran of three marriages, all of them to Tahitian women . His expertise seems to rest in part on his knowledge of Tahitian women's body types. The Post puts it this way: "It also helps, he believes, to have certain things in common with Gauguin, including his love of Tahitian women, which he says allows him to get inside Gauguin’s 'skin and mind.'"
This week my students studied the Gauguin Portraits exhibition that was staged in 2019 at the National Gallery of Canada and the National Gallery, London. I also gave them this article to read from the New York Times:
My students' answer? A resounding Yes. Too many naked young brown women. Too much misogyny. Too much oppression, too much white supremacy, too much racism. A few suggested that his paintings no longer be exhibited at all; some suggested that his paintings be removed from museum collections. (Selling a few Gauguins to make up for lost earned revenue might not be the worst idea.)
And then a friend sent me the Post's article. "It's the nude that bothers Fabrice Fourmanoir," reads the first line. The implication is that Fourmanoir is an expert on the unclothed bodies of Tahitian women. And that it's that expertise, the expertise of the white man who has bedded women of color, that makes him worth all these column inches. The article includes commentary from academic and museum experts, couched in the context of expertise and authenticity. It's illustrated with large color photos of this Frenchman of a certain age lounging about in the tropics. The Post draws the analogy to Gauguin himself: like the artist, Fourmanoir describes himself as an "iconoclast" and "adventurer." He comes shirtless to his WhatsApp interview (no word on whether he wore his Panama hat).
The article leans into the very exoticism and sensuality that has made Gauguin popular and controversial for the last century. The very exoticism and sensuality that my students identified as the relics of colonialism. We are in a time of reckoning. A time to reexamine the stories we have told ourselves and our children about where we come from, what we are, where we are going. Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch told a reporter this summer:
History often teaches us to embrace ambiguity, to understand there aren’t simple answers to complex questions, and Americans tend to like simple answers to complex questions. So the challenge is to use history to help the public feel comfortable with nuance and complexity.
Is there ambiguity in the attribution of these paintings? Yes. But to treat that ambiguity without nuance--to put it down to, yet again, the expertise of white men over brown women's bodies--is to do a disservice to the serious work of reexamining our past. We all--even Gauguin, yes, and the women he knew and painted, and my students, all of us--deserve better.