The Getty Center Hosts Lecture on Newly Acquired Collection Gem

18Jul08

By Laura Gatewood

The Getty's newly acquired gem: Paul Gauguin's stunning Arii Matamoe

Last March The Getty Center announced the purchase of a rarely seen Post-Impressionist painting, Paul Gauguin’s Arii Matamoe. Gauguin painted the work in 1892, a year after traveling to his beloved Tahiti. The subject of the painting, which depicts the severed head of a Polynesian man laid out for ceremonial mourning, has generated a great deal of scholarly ink regarding its indeterminate meaning.

Scott Allan, assistant curator in the Department of Paintings at the Getty, recently lectured on the ambiguities facing interpretation, exploring multiple threads of art historical context behind the work’s dramatic appeal. Beginning with a literal translation of the title, “Royal Death”, Allan posits that the severed head could symbolize the end of royal hegemony and traditional Polynesian culture after the last king of Tahiti passed away in 1891. Allan follows with an artist-centric hypothesis, exploring Gauguin’s fascination with martyrdom, particularly his own. Showing images of Gauguin’s various ceramic drinking mugs cast out of his own profile with blood colored glaze laced around the artist’s “neck”, Allan provides an intriguing connection of artist to subject .

Whether Gauguin thought more of himself or the death of man’s native self in the face of colonization and technology will always remain conjecture. But what Allan did prove beautifully, if latently, through this special new acquisition was that the most satisfying search for meaning within subject matter takes a holistic approach, accounting for both artist biography and historical context.

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