57. Signatures and attributions
To greet the New Year we have a visual game to play that takes us from the typeface of Twitter to the painterly loops of Paul Gauguin. The Musée de Pont-Aven tweeted yesterday that this week the paper conservator Marine Letouzey visited to review the museum’s collection of works on paper. It’s likely that the collections staff was working out its 2022 budget and needed to know which works on paper would need some professional cleaning and conservation. Madame Letouzey and the staff examined one of the museum’s pastels closely, removing it from its frame:
Gauguin created this pastel study of two Breton women sometime in 1894: he had come back to Brittany and was spending a few months in Pont-Aven at the Pension Gloanec. A circle of painters had gathered around him. One of them was Maxime Maufra (1861-1918), an up and coming younger artist who had been regularly showing his work in Paris alongside Louis Roy, Charles Filiger, and other friends of Gauguin at a small gallery and artists' supply shop on the Right Bank called Le Barc de Boutteville. Gauguin decided to give Maufra his pastel, and inscribed it: “à l’ami Maufra / à l’artiste de l’avant-garde / aïta aromoe / Paul Gauguin” “to my friend Maufra / the avant-garde artist / in remembrance / Paul Gauguin.” “In remembrance” is a loose translation of the French translation “pas oublié” given for Gauguin’s use of the Maori phrase aïta aromoe. Look up the phrase in a Maori dictionary and you won’t find it; Gauguin’s grasp of Maori, the language spoken in Tahiti, was rudimentary but confident. He did not hesitate to improvise words when necessary and translate them authoritatively for his Francophone friends.
On my morning scroll through Twitter today, I saw the Musée de Pont-Aven’s post and photos. I clicked through the photos and stopped at the inscription: “à l’ami” brought me up short. Not because of the phrase that sounds so odd to English speakers, but because of the shape of the letters. Look again:
And look at the same phrase in paint instead of ink:
Detail, Flowers and Fruit, Haggin Museum
The handwriting is—well, I would say, if pressed, that it is the same. The thin upstroke of the lower curve of the a, the diminishing hills of the m, are almost too subtle to copy. They transmit the pressure of fingers on a tool, the engagement between thumb and forefinger, the telegraphing of thought from brain to nerves to skin to medium. Think too closely and you will fall through the trapdoor of the past.
But does that make Flowers and Fruit authentic? After four years of exploring the source material, I could argue both sides. I could lay out evidence for you that the painting is, as it purports to be, a gift to Louis Roy from Paul Gauguin. And I could lay out equal evidence that it is likely not.
When in 1987 art historian Patricia Sanders wrote, on behalf of the Haggin Museum, to Gauguin specialist Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynsky to inquire about Flowers and Fruit, he responded with a chatty, speculative letter. After tossing out ideas and observations for two pages, he ended with: “It is not by Gauguin. But who is it by?” Sixteen years later, in 2003, Jirat-Wasiutynski published an article in the Van Gogh Museum Journal titled “Authentic Gauguins: avant-garde originality and the catalogue raisonné.” The Wildenstein Institute had published the catalogue raisonné for Gauguin’s work between 1873-1888 in 2001, and Jirat-Wasiutynski used this article to comment on what was chosen for inclusion and what wasn’t. The goal of a catalogue raisonné is to turn the artist’s body of work into a monolith. Think of it as the impenetrable black slab of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is self-contained, solid, unchanging. But Jirat-Wasiutynski suggests that perhaps a forging a monolith is not the most interesting occupation. Perhaps, he writes, “inauthenticity, misattribution, and falsification…can teach us much about the artist’s work, its influence and reception.” Those misattributions, he continues, can break open the monolith so that we can see the messy bits that went into putting it together. We can see the breaks and the discontinuities before they have been sanded and polished to a high sheen. The monolith of the catalogue raisonné tells us as much about those who built it as it does about the art contained within (and without). Breaking it apart can reveal different truths, different forces at work.
And so we begin our third year here at The Disappearing Gauguin. We’ll spend more time in Le Pouldu with Madame Henry and her paying (or not) guests. We’ll send Gauguin off on his travels, and while he’s away we’ll visit with Louis Roy and his family in the far from bohemian rue de La Fayette in Paris. If time and energy allow it, this year will bring us past the Great War and to the Gauguin sales and auctions that began in 1919: this year may even bring us back where we began, to N. Pershing Avenue in Stockton, CA. Thank you, faithful and patient readers. I’m not always sure where we’re going, but I hope I’m good company. I know I’m glad you’re along for the ride.