Is that a Gauguin or a fake? Historic painting downgraded at the Tate

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The Tate’s supposed Gauguin, Tahitians (which the gallery dates at around 1891) depicts a young man painted in oils, a woman in blue crayon and two further women sketched in charcoal. Courtesy of Tate | Via The Art Newspaper


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Gauguin in 1891 | Wikimedia

Artist Paul Gauguin may be a much-cited name in the world of art, but not many know that this French Post-Impressionist artist spent 10 long years in French Polynesia towards the end of his life.

Born in June 1848, Gauguin was a familiar of well-known names in art like Vincent and Theo van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, as well as Edgar Degas. His works have gone on to deeply influence many other iconic artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse — but in his life, he did not gain much recognition, but was at the centre of repeated controversy. It was only after his death that his posthumous exhibitions captured the attention of art observers. Nearly 100 years after his death (May 1903), Gauguin is today once more a focal point of attention in the art world, after certain developments this week.

For background — it was after his travel to the Caribbean destinations of Panama and Martinique circa the late 1880s that Gauguin first explored themes of exotic locations, rural and indigenous populations, which later became repeated motifs in his work. Incidentally, the paintings he created here at first were also seen and admired by the van Gogh brothers. By 1890, Gauguin had conceived the project of making Tahiti his next artistic destination — his avowed intent was reportedly to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. He ended up breathing his last in French Polynesia.

Now, a piece of his significant artistic legacy that arises from his time there has been thrown into question. A £15-million Gauguin painting owned by the Tate museum in the UK has been downgraded to a fake and the leading Wildenstein Plattner Institute has excluded it from a catalogue of Gauguin’s works. After the painting — titled ‘Tahitians’ — was excluded from the authoritative catalogue raisonné that has just been published by the New York-based art institute, although the Tate still accepts it as authentic, a spokesman says that it will now “keep the work under review”. A Tate spokesman has stated, “The work was included by the Wildenstein Institute in their Gauguin catalogue raisonné in 1964 and Tate was not contacted prior to the publication of the latest edition. We recognise there has been ongoing research into Gauguin’s work in recent years, so we will keep the work under review and retain an open mind about any research that might help cast familiar works in a new light.”

The Tate’s supposed Gauguin, Tahitians (which the gallery dates at around 1891) depicts a young man painted in oils, a woman in blue crayon and two further women sketched in charcoal. Courtesy of Tate | Via The Art Newspaper

The decision to exclude the unsigned painting was made by two leading catalogue raisonné committee members — Richard Brettell (who died in July 2020) and Sylvie Crussard, who had worked together for 20 years. But, the institute is withholding the reasons for the rejection.

Interestingly, this same painting was accepted in the 1964 Wildenstein catalogue raisonné (a predecessor to the institute’s web publication), and at that point was dated to 1894, during Gauguin’s two-year return to France. The Tate, on the other hand, dates the painting to around 1891, very soon after Gauguin’s arrival in Tahiti.

‘Tahitians’ was acquired in 1917 from distinguished art historian Roger Fry (he invented the term Post-Impressionism). The Art Newspaper, which first broke the news about the painting’s status, describes: “Tahitians is an unusual picture, since it is partly painted with oil on paper, which has been mounted on canvas. On the left side of the composition, a Tahitian boy and a section of landscape with palm trees and mountains are roughly painted in oils. Three women are inside a hut or veranda, their outlines sketched in charcoal. The woman in the centre of the composition is more firmly drawn in blue crayon. The fact that the painting is unfinished gives it a special importance. If authentic, it would reveal a considerable amount about Gauguin’s technique—starting with a rough charcoal sketch, firming in the outlines and then painting in oils. But if it is a fake, it is misleading.”

Fabrice Fourmanoir, a French art historian | Credit: Facebook Via The Daily Mail

Doubts about its origins were actually raised last year by French art historian Fabrice Fourmanoir — who believes it to be the work of artist Charles Alfred Le Moine, who lived in Polynesia around the same time. Fourmanoir is a former Polynesian resident, Gauguin enthusiast and now a researcher on authenticity of his works. He seems to be convinced that the Tate work is a fake and has reportedly said it is too stereotypical a colonial Tahiti scene, whereas Gauguin looked for more primitive compositions. “The poses, dresses and even the European accordion held by the woman show Tahitians ‘corrupted’ by European customs,” he has said.

Fourmanoir has asserted that it must have been painted by Charles Alfred Le Moine, who lived in Polynesia from 1902 (the year before Gauguin’s death) until 1918, the year of his own death. Fourmanoir once owned 15 works by Le Moine, so knows his work well.

At present, the Tate has two fully authenticated Gauguins — a Brittany landscape, Harvest: Le Pouldu (1890), and an important Tahitian painting, Faa Iheihe (1898).


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