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.
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.
Cézanne had few direct imitators, let alone what might be called a school. And even the young Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), in whom his influence is most obvious, abandoned any trace of the master after only a few years. It should also be said that, in Picasso's rose and blue periods, just before his cubist phase, he had been strongly influenced by Gauguin and his school, and that the general outlines of this influence would powerfully reassert themselves after the brief interlude of analytic cubism had passed.
But what, in its broadest terms, was the nature of Gauguin's influence? It was an assertion of the sovereign right of the artist arbitrarily to transfigure reality in accordance with his most private impulses. How odd and aberrational a work like Gauguin's relief Soyez mystérieuses (Be mysterious) of 1890 must have seemed to contemporaries! This polychrome wood carving was made a year after the Volpini show, but it appears in the Cleveland exhibition, and it was doubtless similar in spirit to carvings that Gauguin had placed in that show. A naked young woman floats amid stylized waves, while disembodied mermaids hover about her. The words "soyez mysterieuses" appear out of nowhere—a shocking verbal intrusion into the conventions of European culture.
All of this seemed like a direct affront to the most inveterate habits of Western art. Since the late fourteenth century, Western art had been largely commited to a naturalistic view of the world. There had been moments, surely, of strengthening and abeyance in this tendency: mannerism and rococo permitted more liberties than did the High Renaissance or the baroque. In the aftermath of romanticism, an emotive freedom entered Western culture that was joined to an only partial liberation of form—just as in the Middle Ages there had been considerable formal and chromatic freedom, but at the level of society, rather than of the individual artist.
What Gauguin achieved, together with artists like Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and Bernard—but far more powerfully, because he was a far greater artist—was a fundamental reconception of visual reality and of mankind's relation to it. One-point perspective—which had held sway in the West since the early quattrocento—could henceforth be fractured and splayed, while Hindu totems collided with Mariological symbols, and human flesh lurched from yellow to green in the space of a few supercharged inches of pigment on canvas.
Consider Gauguin's Arlésiennes (Mistral) of 1888, one of the foremost masterpieces in the Cleveland show (see Fig. 1). Here all sense of depth has been stomped out. Dark yellow trees and a red fence are well on their way to pure form, and one of the two female figures in the middle ground is turning blue.
Perhaps it was the inherent destiny of Western art to reach this degree of freedom, rather as some later mariner would eventually have reached the New World by accident even if Columbus had never done so by design. But such was the eminence and artistic triumph of Paul Gauguin that he established such individual liberties as the bedrock of all subsequent art in the West. The fauves and the sundry schools of German expressionism would not have been possible without his precedent. Different though it was in form and intent, neither Dada nor surrealism would have asserted itself without the liberating example of Gauguin—nor for that matter would the various forms of abstraction that arose out of Wassily Kandinsky's earliest abstractions, which themselves emerged out of the expressionism of the Blaue Reiter. One can even argue that the all too contemporary tantrums heard in Basel and Chelsea represent nothing more than the latest unfolding of what Gauguin first revealed to the world in 1889, along the carmine-colored walls of Monsieur Volpini's Café des Arts.
Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from October 4 to January 18, 2010, and will be seen later at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
1 Quoted in Belinda Thomson, "Gauguin goes Public" in Heather Lemonedes, Belinda Thomson, and Agnieszka Juszczak, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, and Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2009), p. 33. 2 Ibid., p. 29.
JAMES GARDNER is an art and architecture critic.