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Getty Museum Acquires Rare Gauguin Sculpture

June 27, 2002


Los Angeles--The J. Paul Getty Museum today announced the acquisition of Head with Horns (1895-97) by Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903). The rare wood sculpture will go on view at the Getty in November 2002, after its loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for the exhibition Gauguin in New York Collections (June 18-October 20, 2002).

Prior to its rediscovery in 1997, Head with Horns was known only from two photographs that Gauguin pasted into his personal copy of the manuscript, Noa Noa. Carved in Tahiti and featuring an almost life-sized head with two animal-like horns, Head with Horns may be a symbolic self-portrait, as the sculpture suggests Gauguin’s own features, possibly mixed with the attributes of Tahitian natives.

“Every visitor to the Getty will be moved by this powerful and personal sculpture, which was displayed in Gauguin’s own house in Panaaiua, Tahiti,” remarked Barry Munitz, president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “The opportunity to bring this work to light, especially when paired with other Getty objects, was one that precisely fits our objective to leverage and combine the Getty’s resources to serve visitors, students, scholars, and the community.”

Head with Horns complements other objects in Getty collections. A draft of Noa Noa is held in the Getty Research Institute’s collections; and the Getty Museum acquired last year its first work by the artist, the life-size drawing of a teenage girl made during his first trip to Tahiti—Head of a Tahitian Woman (about 1892).

“Sculpture by Gauguin is exceedingly rare, and this intriguing work stands out as a superb example,” said Deborah Gribbon, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and vice president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “We feel especially fortunate to be able to display Head with Horns, which will become a natural centerpiece of our installation of symbolist art.”

What is Head with Horns?

Untitled and not referenced in the text of Noa Noa, Head with Horns has eluded precise interpretation. In European art, a horned head is often associated with images of the devil, animals, or mythological creatures, such as a faun, a bull, or Pan; but in the Polynesian islands, the horns of this sculpture resemble a style of hair meant to express power—bunched knots at either side of the head—worn by young men in an area near where Gauguin stayed from 1891. It is thought that Head with Horns may be an example of an idol made to re-interpret the island’s traditions. Gauguin wrote in Noa Noa of his sadness to find that colonists had begun destroying the indigenous culture of Tahiti, and sought to “recover the traces of that past.”

Gauguin also might have intended to create a Polynesian-influenced self-portrait. Presenting himself as what Gauguin called a “savage”—an indigenous man untouched by outside influences—was a recurring theme in Noa Noa. Moreover, the incorporation of the sculpture in two monotypes, both titled Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (about 1900, private collection), depicting a Tahitian girl accompanied by the head of a sinister male figure, may indicate a complex symbolism, perhaps involving Gauguin’s own feelings about Tahitian women and his opinions on colonization.

Mysterious as it may be, there is little dispute as to the importance of the work to the artist. “The fact that Gauguin pasted two photographs of Head with Horns into Noa Noa, a manuscript intended as a vehicle for explaining his art, underlines the significance the work had for him,” explains Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings and sculpture, J. Paul Getty Museum. “Made at a moment of great artistic creativity, the work represents one of Gauguin’s most successful combinations of Polynesian and Western sources, creating a cohesive, yet enigmatic whole.”

Gauguin and His Style

Born into a middle-class family in Paris in 1848, Eugène-Henri-Paul Gauguin spent much of his early life in exotic places, including four years in Peru and six years traveling the world with the French merchant navy. In the 1870s his godfather, Gustave Arosa, encouraged Gauguin to take up painting and to begin collecting works of art. Soon thereafter, Gauguin’s career was officially launched when he met Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, who invited the young artist to exhibit at the fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1879.

Around that time, Gauguin received instruction in stone carving from academically trained sculptor Jules Bouillot. Gauguin soon departed from traditional styles, however, and began to emphasize a folk art quality in his work. He wrote to Vincent van Gogh’s brother, Theo, “You know that by birth my background is Indian, Inca, and all that I do reflects this…I am seeking to set something more natural over corrupt civilization, with the primitive as my starting point.”

Gauguin’s search for an artists’ community in an unspoiled natural setting led him to Tahiti in 1891, but there he found little sign of the ancient culture he had expected, and was faced, instead, with what he saw as a corrupted, colonized society. As a response to Tahiti’s lack of an indigenous sculpture tradition, Gauguin began to create his own idols, which he called “ultra-savage sculpture,” developing a wood sculpture style from which emerged Head with Horns.

Joins Other Getty Acquisition This Season

Head with Horns joins another important acquisition made by the J. Paul Getty Museum this spring. A large painting by Meindert Hobbema (Dutch, 1638-1709), A Wooded Landscape with Travelers on a Path through a Hamlet, has just gone on view at the Getty Museum.

Note to editors: color images available upon request.

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