Gauguin on a platter

Times Staff Writer

Marking the end of an eight-year quest and the expenditure of untold millions of dollars, the J. Paul Getty Museum has acquired a signature Tahitian painting by French artist Paul Gauguin.

"Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)," a richly colored but curiously morbid image, depicts the severed head of a Polynesian man on a white pillow, set on a small purple table in an elaborately decorated room. The artist painted the 18-by-30-inch work in oil on roughly textured cloth in 1892, during his first sojourn in Tahiti.

The Getty, which purchased the painting from a private Swiss collection through Parisian dealer Daniel Malingue, plans to put it on view in early April.

"This is a very satisfying acquisition for us," said Michael Brand, director of the museum, scrutinizing the work on an easel in the museum's paintings conservation lab Tuesday. "It's an answer to the question people always ask about what you would like to add to your collection. We had a clear need for a great painting by Gauguin to accompany our Post-Impressionist masterpieces by Van Gogh and Cezanne."

Describing the addition as "a key moment" in the history of the museum's collection, Brand said the Gauguin also exemplifies the artist's fascination with Polynesian civilization and his connection to the French Symbolists.

Scott Schaefer, the Getty's curator of paintings, said the artwork is "the most famous painting by Gauguin that no one has seen."

Although widely published and well-known to scholars, the painting has been out of the public eye for decades because the former owner usually declined to lend it to exhibitions.

Schaefer and Getty paintings conservator Mark Leonard became aware that "Arii Matamoe" might be available for sale and went to Switzerland to see it eight years ago. They found a work that was in pristine condition and immediately knew they wanted it. The museum soon put the artwork "on hold" with the dealer, but the process of acquiring it took a long time because of changes in leadership at the Getty and because of other major acquisitions already under discussion or in process.

Brand, who took charge of the museum two years ago, said that waiting for the right Gauguin instead of grabbing one of many lesser examples it had been offered points up the virtue of "long-term curatorial planning and patience." Although the Getty did not disclose the price it paid, Gauguin paintings have brought as much as $39.2 million at auction.

Gauguin, who lived from 1848 to 1903, abandoned his banking job in France to become a full-time painter in 1885. He made his first trip to Tahiti in 1891, hoping to find inspiration in a tropical paradise where he could live close to nature. He became obsessed with the landscape and native lifestyle, but much of what he painted was a fantasy that incorporated various aspects of art history.

The severed head, which Schaefer called "the ultimate still life," may represent King Pomare V, who died -- but not by decapitation -- soon after the artist's arrival in Tahiti. Schaefer and his fellow curator, Scott Allan, said that the image is a metaphor for the death of Tahitian culture in the face of European colonization and that it may represent the savagery Gauguin expected, but did not find, in Tahiti. The image also recalls severed heads of John the Baptist, Orpheus and other individuals depicted by the French Symbolists.

Gauguin took "Arii Matamoe" back to France in 1893 and exhibited it with about 40 other Tahitian paintings at the Durand-Ruel gallery. It didn't sell during the show, but Henry Lerolle, an academic painter, bought it a few years later. The anonymous Swiss collector acquired the painting in the 1930s.

At the Getty, the Gauguin joins two drawings and a wood-sculpture self-portrait by the artist. The acquisition also complements Gauguin holdings in other local museums. The Norton Simon Museum has a Tahitian painting made during the artist's second trip to the island. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has seven earlier works, made in Brittany. The Hammer Museum also has Brittany-period Gauguin.

Together, Schaefer said, the artworks represent the entire sweep of Gauguin's career.

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suzanne.muchnic @latimes.com

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