Gauguin rising

Reconstructing this watershed exhibition in Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 has proved a challenge for its curators. According to a catalogue essay by Belinda Thomson, an independent British scholar and an adviser to the exhibition, "the Volpini show was an ad hoc affair that left scant trace: no installation photographs and just a single sketch by a contemporary illustrator, a rudimentary poster [see Fig. 8], a cheaply produced catalogue comprising a list of works, and a handful of references in the more ephemeral art journals of the day."2

When all was said and done, the Volpini show must have seemed like a resounding failure to Gauguin and his coexhibitors. Of the almost one hundred paintings, sculptures, and works on paper that were in the original show (more than seventy-five are reassembled in Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889) almost nothing sold except for a few portfolios of Gauguin's own Volpini Suite, eleven zincographs that, technically, were not even on display (see Figs. 3-6). And despite abundant promises, there were no reviews in the mainstream press. Still, for the first time, artists were appearing together to promulgate a new conception of painting and sculpture whose implications for the future of visual art in the West cannot be exaggerated, though they are not always understood or acknowledged even today.

The Volpini exhibition of 1889 represents a turning point in Gauguin's career, and in the history of Western art as well. Gauguin had exhibited in five of the impressionists' annual shows between 1876 and 1886. A work like Breton Girls Dancing, Pont Aven, which was painted in 1888 and appeared in the Volpini exhibition, retains some of the visual and thematic clarity of Gauguin's impressionist roots (see Fig. 2). The perspective is slightly skewed and the willful dominance of yellow in the forground prefigures what is to come. But for now the three girls who dance beside the old church, as a small dog looks on, fundamentally inhabit the same spatial universe as the artist and the viewer.

All of that was about to change as the Volpini exhibition brought to fruition a transformation that had been developing in Gauguin's art over the previous three years. Increasingly disenchanted with Paris and with his impressionist colleagues, in 1886 Gauguin had gone to Pont-Aven in Brittany, where, a year later, he made the acquaintance of Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. In 1887 as well he sailed to Panama and Martinique before returning to Brittany and embarking on his famous nine-week stay in Arles with Van Gogh.

In the three crucial years in question, Gauguin's style underwent startling changes: the fundamentally realist spirit of the impressionists, still evident in Breton Girls Dancing, now yielded to a view of the world that was haunted by subjectivity and that expressed itself in violent and often brutally simplified colors and forms. And though Gauguin, earlier in 1889, had shown in Brussels with the local group known as Les XX (Les Vingts), the Volpini exhibition represents the first time that he and his most committed followers appeared before the public as a semicoherent group.

Perhaps the most emblematic images in that show were the Volpini Suite. One of these, Joys of Brittany (Fig. 3), bears a striking thematic similarity to Breton Girls Dancing, with its depiction of two girls in the familiar clogs of the Breton peasantry who appear to be dancing among the haystacks. But the spirit of the piece is entirely different from its predecessor. Now the landscape has been drastically flattened and the figures of the girls have been aggressively schematized. This and the ten other images from the series have largely come to define the entire Volpini exhibition, and are one of the monuments of Gauguin's career.

But while his stature has been beyond dispute since soon after his death from syphilis in 1903, the nature and degree of his influence have not been appreciated as they should be. Traditionally, the history of twentieth-century art is seen to pass through the gates of Cézanne's genius, which begat cubism, which then engendered the majority of modern art. But this reading accounts, not for any specific formalism—aside from that of analytic cubism—but rather for a kind of formalist yearning that was most effectively propagandized by Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) in the middle years of the last century. For Greenberg, modernism was a quest for formalist integrity, an ambition that, for him, was most purely expressed in the pared down landscapes and still lifes of Cézanne.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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