Gauguin rising

October 2009 | That anyone even remembers the so-called Volpini exhibition of 1889—which has just been artfully re-created at the Cleveland Museum of Art—is a minor miracle. At the time, this modest Paris show, organized by Paul Gauguin and destined to introduce a new kind of art to the larger world, had to compete for attention with Thomas Edison's phonograph, Javanese dancers, an entire Tonkinese village set up on the Esplanade des Invalides, and, twice daily, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which was set up at the Porte des Ternes near Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Which is to say that the show was hastily assembled in the Café des Arts on the fairgrounds of Paris's fabled Exposition Universelle of 1889, a six-month-long exultation of modernity that lingers on in legend as the occasion for building the Eiffel Tower. At the time, Gauguin's brazen decision to mount his show seemed like a perfect case of David against Goliath, except that few of the 28 million visitors to the exposition seem to have known that this David existed or that the post-impressionism promulgated in the show was about to upend the history of Western art.

It is hard for modern readers to grasp the immense importance and prestige that these international expositions held throughout the developed world in the second half of the nineteenth century. Staged every eleven years, more or less, they riveted the attention of a wide public not only with their exhilarating displays of new technology and engineering, but also with their deep commitment to music, dance, ethnology and, most of all, the visual arts. And the exposition of 1889 seemed doubly important in that it coincided with the centennial of the French Revolution.

Like its predecessors, this latest Exposition Universelle was held on the Champs de Mars and stretched from the École Militaire, in the 7th arrondissement, across the Seine to the Palais de Trocadero on the Right Bank. The fairgrounds were arrayed across this vast space like an invading army, around the colossal presence of the Eiffel Tower. To the south, beside the École Militaire, was the technological section of the exhibition. The cultural component was placed on the Champs de Mars, closer to the Eiffel Tower.

The visual arts were divided into two main exhibitions, the Décennale and Centennale, which celebrated French art of the previous decade and century respectively. The art of other countries was also present, but French nationalism was rampant, and Antonin Proust (1832-1905), a former minister of fine art who was instrumental in organizing the exposition, later recalled gleefully that French art "totally triumphed."1

In the meantime, Gauguin, ever passionate and engaged, was having quite a time at the fair. He was delighted by the Javanese dancers, and went twice to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and even managed to arrange an assignation with a woman from one of the ethnological exhibitions (possibly only to paint her portrait). Contrary to what one might expect of this famously rough-hewn man, he was even enchanted by the displays of Sèvres porcelain.

But in regard to the art on view, Gauguin was decidedly less enthusiastic. Though former rebels like Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet had made it into the Centennale and impressionists like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne had made it into the Décennale, most of the space at the latter was given over to more conventional artists like Camille Corot, and especially to academicians like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Carolus-Duran, and Jules Joseph Lefebvre.

In response, Gauguin first consulted with Émile Schuffenecker (1851-1934) and Émile Bernard (1868-1941), two painters allied to his style, and then he sprang into action, mounting an exhibition in one of the nearly fifty eateries that had been granted a concession on the fairgrounds. In arranging his upstart exhibition, Gauguin was following a course that already had a long tradition: Courbet's Pavillon du Realismé had been set up in response to the first Exposition Universelle in 1855, while Manet had staged a similar show to coincide with the exposition in 1867. But while those earlier exhibitions had been held outside of the fairgrounds, Gauguin succeeded in mounting his show in the very heart of it, along the rich carmine walls of Monsieur Volpini's café.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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