47. La rentrée
I check the website of the Musée de Pont-Aven every month or so, hoping that a miracle will have transpired and their archives will appear, fully digitized. Today when the website loaded, not only did the archives remain undigitized--but there was a reminder that the centre de ressources would close from August 11 through 31, reopening September 1.
Of course: c'est la rentrée. The beginning of September brings the start of the new academic year in France and, alas, the end of the August vacances: the re-entry. Madame la documentaliste at the Musée de Pont-Aven is on holiday, as is nearly everyone in France who has the privilege. She will be back at her desk September 1. Students across France will go back to school on September 2.
And the Disappearing Gauguin is coming back from its vacances . My family is settled, my summer grades are turned in, and the dogs...well, we're working on crate training and, trust
me, research is more fun. I have summoned our artists and their associates back to the new season of our story. Up in the mountains, down by the lakes, they are packing their trunks now, stowing their canvases, counting their brushes, and checking the train schedules. We'll take up the tale of the disappearing Gauguin in the spring of 1889, season of the Eiffel Tower's debut and of the Volpini Exhibition's flop. This part of our story will lead us to one of the possible--likely--perhaps--moments when Flowers and Fruit joined the scene. And it will launch us into the next chapters, when we trace paths that the painting may have taken, and who may have accompanied it.
If you, unlike the people who eat dinner with me every evening, need a refresher on some key events and characters, here you go:
Flowers and Fruit, dedicated "à l'ami Roy" and ostensibly signed by Gauguin, was sold at auction on March 14, 1923.
It found its way to the Haggin Museum, in Stockton, CA, in 1939.
Paul Gauguin (formerly attributed), Flowers and Fruit, The Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA
Researchers in Paris lost track of the painting and declared it "disparu" (disappeared; dead) in the 1964 Gauguin Catalogue raisonné.
I brought the painting to the attention of the creators of the revised Gauguin Catalogue raisonné, and they declined to include it in the revision. Which suggests that this generation's experts do not accept Flowers and Fruit as an authentic Gauguin.
In The Disappearing Gauguin, I am reconstructing the possible history of the painting.
So far, our story has focused on Paul Gauguin, his adventures, career, and friends. In these next chapters, our lens will shift to other characters as we draw closer to the time and place where Flowers and Fruit seems most likely to have been created--if it was created by, or in the vicinity of, Paul Gauguin. Le Pouldu, at the western edge of Brittany, will be our base of operations: we'll hear of Paris, but we won't spend much time there. Instead we'll explore nearby cliffs and rocky beaches near the remote village.
We'll take as our point of entry for the next few chapters a figure who has been central to
the Gauguin story for a century: a young woman named Marie Henry. Henry was an innkeeper and an accidental collector. She will take us through the next couple of years in our painting's biography, and then her actions will--at least, they might--foretell Flowers and Fruit's later life. This young Breton woman appears in almost all tales about Gauguin in Brittany, but she stays behind the bar, polishing glasses and stirring the soup. With the sources I can cobble together, we're going to try to look through her eyes, to see what she saw as she leaned against the counter top and thought about what to make for dinner.
At least, perhaps, possibly: this project lives in the conditional tense. I have spent nearly four years researching Flowers and Fruit. I am not sure that I know much more about the painting itself today than when I started. I know of a rich world around Gauguin, and around the buying and selling of his work. I know when the painting first appeared on the art market, who brought it to auction, who bought it, and for how much. But I don't know where it was before. I have ideas, theories, even. I have realized, though, that I may never know the answer.
In the spring of my first year in college, I took English 216: Introduction to the Novel. It was a large class by the standards of my school--75 or so students in a stepped lecture hall, with two tenured English faculty taking turns on the novels. We read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and I am still not sure what happened in it, when, and to whom. The plot never stuck, but this did:
What is the meaning of life? That was all; a simple question — one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.
I have just about given up on a great revelation about Flowers and Fruit. I don't think there will be one, so if you are here for an answer, this might not be your place. If you are here, though, for the gradual accretion of details, the filling in of corners, for surprising bits of research that may lead us towards another new, unexpected place: I can offer that. Let's go.