hunting the painting

The scene is quite horrific. A half-naked woman rests her hand on a dish with a man’s decapitated head on it, the mouth wide open. She is joyful and laughs triumphantly. I've been looking for this painting for two years. It depicts Mata Hari, after her performance in Rome in 1912.

A picture of it is in her scrapbook, which is displayed in the Museum of Friesland. She added a note alongside it: 'Painting, made in Rome for the prince of SF, 1912. Oscar Wilde's Salomé, and Strauss, performed by me in Rome at the Palazzo Barberini.’ She glued it somewhat haphazardly on a page from 1905. Author Sam Waagenaar used the image as a cover for his book. Other writers copied it, including the text in her scrapbook.

A painting? Made in Rome? Commissioned by the besotted prince of San Faustino? That sounds like an adventure! I start in Groningen, just next door, with Valerio Cugia, an Italian artist. He doesn’t know anything about it, but is helpful and resourceful. He does not exclude the possibility that the painting could be somewhere in an attic or in a haystack, maybe even burned in a fireplace. He talks about the discovery of a work by Bonnard in a house somewhere. The owner had paid a few hundred Euros for it, while it was actually worth a few million.

We take another look at the picture of Mata Hari. Sadly, this is no great work of art. We can forget the millions. Valerio suggests I contact writer and philosopher Pino Blasone. In one of his essays on Orientalism he called Mata Hari a pioneer of the veil dance, a femme fatale and dancer.

In the meantime, Arnold Witte of the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome (KNIR) refers to the private art museum Pinacoteca Agnelli in Turin. The prince's son was an Agnelli, a famous Italian line (the founders of Fiat among others). The museum replied by return mail, they didn’t know anything either, and they don’t have paintings like this in their collection.

Onwards to the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, now a museum, with lots and lots of religious art. Slow, atmospheric and mysterious music seeps through the halls. The attendants look around. Where is the sound coming from? It turns out to be me. It seems I accidentally did something with my iPhone. I apologise, tell the attendant that I'm looking for a painting of Salomé. We have it, she beams. It was a painting by the famous Italian painter Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, from 1608, centuries before Margaretha Zelle was born.

On the Internet I find a black and white version of the painting, owned by Bridgeman Images in London. ‘Dear Hanneke’, writes David Price-Hughes, International Sales Manager, ‘the photo we have could be of the painting. But that’s about all we know, no date, no name. And yes, as you say, the picture in her scrapbook could be a coloured black and white photo. It's a shame we don’t have a colour version because the colour adds so much drama to the scene. Sorry, we cannot help you.’

At the Victoria & Albert Museum website I found a drawing – half-finished – an exact copy of the painting by Michael English.

‘Of course you can come by’, e-mailed Jane Pritchard of the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She is sitting at her desk in the reading room and pins a name tag on me. ‘Welcome Mrs Boonstra,’ she whispers. They’ve already laid out the drawing and removed the tissue paper.

There she is: Mata Hari. In graphite, in black and white. I feel a little emotional. Why did Michael English make this drawing? What did he copy it from? Sam Waagenaar’s book? The painting? I ask Jane if anyone else had ever came by to see this drawing. ‘Not to my knowledge.’ She laughs heartily. ‘You’re the first, I think’, she says, covering the drawing with the tissue paper.

A few kilometres away in London I have an appointment with Nigel Waymouth. In the 1970s he and Michael English – now deceased – formed the duo Hapshash, the centrepiece of the British pop scene. They made silkscreen prints of women in fluorescent colours: mildly erotic, psychedelic ‘vamps lying on the sofa’. They were fascinated by powerful women, femme’s fatales. The drawing of Mata Hari? He’s no idea why Michael made it. Probably to practice. He used to have lots of books in his flat: perhaps the photo was in one of those?

Pino Blasone gets in touch from Rome. He thinks that this isn’t about a painting, but a painted picture from the collection of a studio in Florence. They refer us to another archive. ‘Yes, we have that photo’, says an employee, ‘but it's not the original. If you really look at it, it could be a painting, but the details are so vague that we can’t say for sure.’

I'm back to square one. ‘Well Hanneke’, Pino tries to comfort me, ‘sometimes the emotions an adventure like this makes you feel are more important than the result.’