Up Against the Wall
Caroline Goeser Associate Director for Interpretation
One hundred and twenty years after Paul Gauguin and his comrades staged an independent exhibition in Monsieur Volpini’s Café des Arts on the grounds of the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, Cleveland Institute of Art students install their work on the walls of the Museum Café, just inside the north entrance at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Opening on Friday, November 13, CIA Students: Cleveland, 2009 is a contemporary companion to the museum’s major fall exhibition, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889. Like its famous predecessor the new café exhibition aims to provide exposure for emerging artists and to announce the avant-garde art of a new generation.
“I’m unknown and nobody shows me to the public,” Gauguin wrote to his dealer in 1889, explaining his enthusiasm for the show at Café des Arts. The upstart exhibition took advantage of the café’s prominent location on the grounds of the fair that brought millions of visitors to Paris. Gauguin and his fellow artists intended to claim the right to usher in a new era of modern painting. “Gauguin was devastated in 1886,” explains associate curator of drawings Heather Lemonedes, who organized Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889. Critics had dismissed his work in the last Impressionist exhibition in favor of the pointillist canvases of Georges Seurat. “1889 was a kind of comeback moment for him,” says Lemonedes. Not only did Gauguin inspire an independent show that thumbed its nose at the academic art in the fair’s official exhibition (which had rejected his work), he also snubbed as derivative the work of Seurat and Camille Pissarro. “Don’t forget,” he warned his fellow artists, “it’s not an exhibition for the others . . . It’s our group!” Though critics generally had little to write about the show, one responded as Gauguin had hoped: In De Opmerker for September 7, 1889, the pseudonymous Osado regarded the Café des Arts paintings as “the art of the future,” with fresh approaches to color and “extravagant brushwork” that were “a delight to behold.”
More than a century later, the walls of another café will fill with the work of emerging artists. When this article was written in September, the students were busy crafting widely varying proposals, many imagining site-specific installations. Thematically, they react as contemporary artists to Gauguin’s Café des Arts show, thinking broadly about artistic self-discovery and how to create an avant-garde expression in 2009. Maggie Denk-Leigh, head of the CIA printmaking department, is excited about this opportunity and trusts that “the students are going to challenge us.” She will serve on the show’s collaborative jury and organizing committee, which also includes CMA curator of contemporary art Paola Morsiani and contemporary artist and recent CIA alum Ben Kinsley.
The 1889 show was “recognized as something new,” Lemonedes notes, “something bold and not necessarily polished.” Similarly, CIA senior drawing major Hannah Bigeleisen imagines the new show will “give museumgoers the opportunity to see really raw, new work that’s not fully fleshed out.” This will be a new experience for many CMA visitors, and Bigeleisen feels the show “will definitely draw new audiences.”
What will museum visitors see in our café show? That’s the surprise! Not even the CIA students will know until they install it during the week before the November 13 opening. Further dramatizing this excitement is an after-hours party running 9:00 to 1:00 the following morning, with two contemporary musical performances, refreshments and cash bars, and the same spirit of lively adventure that accompanied Gauguin’s Café des Arts show. A reviewer of the 1889 exhibition quipped that the artists had “tattooed the walls of the Café des Arts,” a sufficiently chaotic environment that it was “impossible to get near these canvases because of the sideboards, beer pumps, tables, cashier’s bosom and an orchestra of young Muscovites whose bows unleash in the vast hall a music that bears no relationship with these polyphonic works.” Don’t miss the chance to revel in a similarly inspired cacophony.
Cleveland Art, November 2009