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An Exhibition of an Exhibition

Gauguin proclaimed himself the leader of a new school of painting, heralding the art of the future
Heather Lemonedes, Associate Curator of Drawings
July 24, 2017
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (La Ronde des Petites Bretonnes), 1888. Oil on canvas; 73 x 92.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1983.1.19. Image courtesy of the Board of Tr

In the 19th century, international exhibitions, or world’s fairs, were large-scale industrial and cultural shows in which many nations participated. The first was held in London at the Crystal Palace in 1851; it was succeeded by increasingly ambitious exhibitions every few years in major European and American cities. The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris was an unparalleled extravaganza, bshowcasing industry, technology, and the arts. The recently completed Eiffel Tower, then the tallest building in the world, was one of the star attractions. Visitor numbers to the exposition reached an astonishing 28 million.

Artists whose work was deemed unacceptable for inclusion in the official exposition occasionally mounted their own exhibitions near or within the fairgrounds: in 1855 Gustave Courbet built his own pavilion nearby, as did Édouard Manet in 1867. In 1889 the impoverished Paul Gauguin hadn’t the means for such lavish expenditure, but he recognized the possibilities in self-promotion and craved the attention of the public and the critics. Seizing an opportunity when a shipment of gilt mirrors meant to decorate a brasserie on the fairgrounds was delayed, Gauguin and his friends persuaded the proprietor, a Monsieur Volpini, to decorate the walls of his Café des Arts with their paintings instead. Thus was born L’Exposition de Peintures du Groupe Impressionniste et Synthétiste, an exhibition of about 100 paintings, prints, and drawings by Gauguin and seven of his friends. The avant-garde group called themselves “Impressionistes et Synthétistes,” suggesting a curious blend of Impressionism and Synthetism. According to Gauguin and his artistic disciple Émile Bernard, the term “Synthetism” (from the French verb synthétiser, to synthesize) was based on the idea that art should fuse three features: the outward appearance of forms, the artist’s feeling about his subject, and purely aesthetic concerns of color, line, and form. Thus, with the so-called Volpini show, Gauguin proclaimed himself the leader of a new school of painting and heralded the art of the future.

Charles Laval (French, 1862–1894). Going to Market, Brittany (Allant au Marché, Bretagne), 1888. Oil on canvas; 37.5 x 46 cm. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-Aven through the generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc

Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 re-creates, on a small scale, the Volpini show, the avant-garde exhibition and bold intervention into the academic officialdom of the Exposition Universelle. Gauguin and his friends offered an alternative way of painting, abandoning illustration (what Gauguin called a novel in paint) to address subjective experience for the first time; in so doing he mounted what is now recognized as the first exhibition of Symbolist art in Paris. More than 15 paintings that Gauguin and his contemporaries exhibited in Volpini’s café go on view this month at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The paintings range from Émile Schuffenecker’s Impressionist-inspired still lifes and landscapes of Normandy, to Gauguin’s representations of pastoral Brittany, to boldly assertive portraits by Charles Laval and Bernard, to Gauguin’s most recent paintings of Arles, painted alongside Vincent van Gogh. The avant-garde exhibition garnered some attention in the press. The critic Albert Aurier wrote in Le Moderniste: 

Louis Anquetin (French, 1861–1932). Avenue de Clichy, 1887. Oil on canvas; 69 x 53 cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin 
Sumner Collection Fund 1966.7. © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

 I am happy to learn that individual initiative has attempted what eternally incurable bureaucratic idiocy would never have agreed to do. A small group of independent artists have succeeded in breaking down the doors, not of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, but of the Exposition, and of creating a minute amount of competition with the official exhibition. Ah, yes, the installation is a little primitive, very strange, and as people will doubtless say, bohemian! . . . But what do you expect? If these fine fellows had had a Palais at their disposal, they would certainly not have hung their canvases on the walls of a café.

 A Dutch critic praised what he called “the art of the future”:

         "After quaffing such draughts of mental delight I began to feel the need for a little physical refreshment. . . . I entered a spacious hall built against the palace, which beckoned me with the enticing notice: Café des Arts. There, Art was celebrated in two fashions. The Muse of Music was fêted by three ladies and four gentlemen who, mounted upon a small platform, executed a selection of pieces taken from dances and operas. The Muse of Painting was commemorated by the most independent of artistes indépendents, who had displayed upon the wall a not inconsiderable quantity of their products. Such work is now regarded here as the art of the future; the paintings show people with blue faces, green suns, purple trees, in brief, almost every object that is represented has a different color from the one that mankind has until now been accustomed to see. Furthermore, the extravagant brushwork is bold and forthright. I am curious to know whether such work will in time replace the art of the Millets and the Corots."

Poster for the Exhibition at the Café des Arts, 1889. Lithograph; 28 x 39.7 cm. Pennsylvania State University Libraries, Rare Books and Manuscripts Special Collections BRH-13. Image courtesy of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Library, Penn

 No photographs of the exhibition in the Café des Arts have survived. A lithograph by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot accompanying an article in the contemporary press reviewing the eclectic and colorful range of music to be heard at the exposition is the only visual record of Volpini’s café. Jeanniot’s illustration shows an orchestra of four women violinists performing in a crowded café, the walls of which are stacked with the most modern art of the time. From another review we learn that the café walls were covered with pomegranate red wallpaper. In Cleveland, 120 years after Gauguin’s intervention into a world’s fair, we will emulate the atmosphere of the Café des Arts, reuniting a group of the same paintings that decorated the carmine walls of Volpini’s café to commemorate and re-create the epochal event. We invite you to meet Gauguin, in Paris, 1889.  

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Landscape from Arles (Près d’Arles), 1888. Oil on canvas; 72.5 x 92 cm. 
National museum, Stockholm NM 1735. © The National Museum of Fine Arts