Meet the Gauguin obsessive who’s trying to prove that major art museums are showing fakes.
It’s the nude that bothers Fabrice Fourmanoir.
The way she’s painted is “unsightly” and “vulgar,” quite unlike the Polynesian women of his mind’s eye. Nor does he like the way she’s artificially inserted on the canvas, part of what he calls an “uninventive assemblage” with no coherent symbolism. Yet there she stands at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in a painting titled “The Invocation,” attributed to Paul Gauguin.
But Fourmanoir’s roving, inquisitorial eye doesn’t stop there. He’s similarly bothered by another painting, this one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, titled “Women and a White Horse.” Though it’s labeled as a Gauguin, its signature is “very weak,” he opines. And the background vegetation looks more like Tahiti than the Marquesas Islands, where Gauguin was living when he was supposed to have painted it.
Fourmanoir isn’t your average weekend art sleuth. The life and works of Gauguin have consumed him for many decades. These two paintings make him suspicious, so much so that questioning their integrity has become a personal crusade. He thinks they’re impostors, and he won’t rest until there’s a full investigation.
Born in Calais, France, Fourmanoir, 63, might once have been dismissed as a crackpot, a wannabe who would never be welcomed into the sophisticated enclave of art scholarship. But since January he’s gained some standing in this forbidding world, after playing a leading role in a blush-inducing admission by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles that a Gauguin sculpture, purchased in 2002 for a reported $3 million to $5 million, is not actually by Gauguin. Now, even as some of the most renowned art scholars continue to look with withering skepticism at Fourmanoir’s motives and credentials, he plans to make the most of his newfound status.
He has his sights set on paintings in several major museums. But his latest proclamations present another test of his credibility. Fourmanoir is rattling the gates not just of the most prestigious museums in Boston and Washington, but also the greater world of Gauguin scholarship, contending that almost all of the celebrated post-impressionist’s final works — as many as 13 paintings displayed at famous museums in such places as Prague, Jerusalem and Zurich — are clever fakes.
Is Fourmanoir a grand illusionist or an art savant? A publicity hound or an earnest truth-seeker? Or is he a beguiling concoction of all those things?
A longtime passion
Fourmanoir has been thinking and dreaming about Gauguin ever since he heard a story told to his grandfather by the French auctioneer Maurice Rheims.
An elderly woman had stopped Rheims on the street in Paris and asked him to look at a painting wrapped in newspaper. It was a still life by Gauguin, which Rheims subsequently sold for what was then a record price.
As a child, Fourmanoir says, “every time we saw Rheims, I asked him to tell me again and again this extraordinary” — and possibly apocryphal — “story. He did it every time with the same emotion he had that 1956 day.”
It was this story, he says, that gave him “the wish to be an art treasure hunter and also a Gauguin connoisseur.”
Like Gauguin, who spent time in the French navy and merchant marines, Fourmanoir loves boats, and literature. When he was 18, inspired by the writings of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, Fourmanoir set off to sail the world for the better part of three decades.
“I start like the first sentences of Melville in ‘Moby Dick,’ ” he says, when asked to provide a short bio. “Call me Fabrice (Ishmael). Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — I was a … young man smuggling Chinese porcelains, guns and cigarettes between communist China and the Philippines with the Sulu Islands pirates and fascinated by the beauty of island girls. One day I discovered Tahiti, which I knew before only by the paintings of Paul Gauguin and the books of Melville, [Robert Louis] Stevenson [and Jack] London.”
Fourmanoir liked Tahiti enough to settle there, opening a small gallery and marrying three Polynesian women in succession. Over the years, his Gauguin obsession deepened. At a Paris auction in 1992, he bought a trove of Gauguin letters, notes, drawings and photographs. This led to collaborations with a few Gauguin scholars, including Elizabeth C. Childs, who thanked Fourmanoir in her book “Vanishing Paradise: Art and Exoticism in Colonial Tahiti.”
Fourmanoir says he lost all of his money during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, after which he divorced “my last Tahitian wife.”
Trouble in paradise
Gauguin, along with Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, is one of the three great post-impressionists and one of the best-known artists in history. On the rare occasions when his paintings come on the market, they can fetch tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet, today more than ever, Gauguin is a highly divisive figure.
To his admirers, he was one of the last great romantic adventurers, a former stockbroker who sloughed off bourgeois conventions and voyaged across the world to live out a dream. He was, they say, a visionary artist who was determined to learn from other cultures, and who used his expanded awareness to make some of the most ambitious, original works of the modern era.
To others, however, he was a scoundrel who traveled to French Polynesia and shamelessly stole creative ideas from cultures he barely knew. These critics also see a man who abandoned his wife and family to father children with teenage girls in the South Seas, relationships that he got away with due to his colonial prestige but that can clearly be seen as more sinister today.
When he decided to travel to Tahiti, Gauguin had imagined himself living “free at last, with no money troubles” and able “to love, to sing, and to die.” But in French Polynesia, the artist was not so free.
After painting his masterpiece “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” in 1897, Gauguin tried to commit suicide. Four years later, he relocated to the Marquesas, a remote section of French Polynesia, where he built a two-story hut he dubbed the “Maison du Jouir” (House of Pleasure). There he was embroiled in squabbles with local authorities and ravaged by injury and illness.
In his final months, after Vaeoho, his pregnant, 14-year-old Marquesan companion, had left him to await the baby’s birth with her grandmother, Gauguin had serious eye problems, and the “Maison du Jouir” reeked so badly from the rot of his ulcerated leg that few could stand to be near him. Most scholars agree that by his death at 54, in May 1903, the artist was not in any state to be turning out masterpieces.
His end was “truly pitiable,” according to George Shackelford, who organized a 2003-2004 exhibition about Gauguin in Tahiti. “I mean, he was really, really, really in extremis. … That he was painting at all in the first months of 1903 is almost miraculous.”
And that’s just it: Fourmanoir thinks Gauguin wasn’t painting, which is why he believes all of the canvases attributed to him in 1903 are forgeries. He claims — sensationally — that the forgeries were commissioned by Gauguin’s art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who wanted to profit from a sudden surge in demand for Gauguin’s work.
‘The weakest picture in the room’
“The Invocation” was accepted by the National Gallery of Art as a gift from John and Louise Booth of Michigan in 1976. When The Washington Post’s art critic, Paul Richard, saw it displayed in the gallery in the company of other Gauguins, he described it as “the weakest picture in the room.”
“Its brushwork is clumsy, its colors muddy, its South Sea maidens crudely drawn,” he wrote.
Remarking on the painting’s connection with other Gauguins, including “Women and a White Horse” and “Where Do We Come From?” (also at the MFA Boston), Richard noted that “uninventive forgers often assemble fakes from such half-familiar images.” “Were ‘Invocation’ by another painter,” he wrote, “its authenticity might be questioned.”
Fourmanoir has taken up where Richard left off.
Of course, it is easier to cast doubt on the authenticity of paintings that are already weak. Art scholarship has traditionally been built on a model of mastery (on the artist’s part) and connoisseurship (on the scholar’s). You could tell something was by Jan Van Eyck or Leonardo da Vinci because it was demonstrably better than work by their imitators. But in the modern era, this model broke down as such artists as van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso tried to “unlearn” conventional ideas of virtuosity and skill, embracing new ways of painting that were often deliberately awkward or clumsy.
Even in these new, mold-breaking modes, modern artists had good days and bad. But admirers of Gauguin don’t like to admit that an artist capable of “Where Do We Come From?” was also capable of very ordinary paintings. So they are left with a choice: They can acknowledge that in 1903 Gauguin was sick, his powers waning. Or they can reach for an explanation that is both more dramatic and less injurious to the artist’s reputation: The weak pictures must be fakes.
Shackelford, a former department head at the MFA who is now senior deputy director at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, knows both “Invocation” and “Women and a White Horse” well. He feels positive about the latter painting: Despite “moments of ineptitude,” he says, “there’s a loveliness to the overall patterning of the colors.” The museum itself, according to MFA spokeswoman Karen Frascona, has “confidence in the attribution of ‘Women and a White Horse’ ” — although she notes that “we always remain open to new scholarly research about works in our care.”
As for “The Invocation,” Shackelford says he once looked at it “very closely” in the company of NGA senior conservator Carol Christensen. “I came away from that telling them, ‘Don’t worry about this painting. It’s correct.’ And I also said, ‘But it’s not very good.’ ”
In fact, he tells me, it’s “really pathetic. But if you understand where it comes from” — a reference to Gauguin’s circumstances in the final months of his life — “it’s literally pathetic. The fact that the gallery doesn’t cherish it [is one thing], but I hope that they don’t doubt it.”
An emailed statement from the NGA, however, implies that some uncertainty persists: “We have looked hard at … ‘The Invocation,’ discussing it with scholars and including it in research projects,” spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie wrote. Gauguin’s late works, she continued, “present particular challenges — he was often ill, and living in the Marquesas — and there are few reliable documents relating to his production there.”