Martin Bailey reports on an ‘exhibition about an exhibition’ that reveals much about Gauguin’s artistic development.
Martin Bailey, Saturday, 24th April 2010
The 1889 Exposition Universelle (or World’s Fair) in Paris is best remembered for the completion of the Eiffel Tower, but art historically the most important event was in fact a modest exhibition in a café. The proprietor of the Café des Arts, Monsieur Volpini, had intended to decorate his establishment with mirrors, but when these failed to arrive he agreed to show paintings by a small group of avant-garde artists that included Gauguin. The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum have set out to reconstruct the 1889 Volpini show in an exhibition which, having opened in Cleveland, can now be seen in Amsterdam.
Although both venues have adopted ‘Paul Gauguin’ as their main title, confusingly the show and catalogue have been assigned a different subtitle in each city – ‘Paris, 1889’ in Cleveland and ‘The Breakthrough into Modernity’ in Amsterdam. For a brief period, from June to October 1889, Volpini’s café was the home of cutting-edge Parisian art. Alongside Gauguin, seven other painters were displayed – Emile Bernard, Emile Schuffenecker, Louis Anquetin, Charles Laval, Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, Louis Roy and Léon Fauché. On the small poster advertising the display they described themselves as the Groupe Impressionniste et Synthétiste (‘synthetism’ being characterised by a simplification of form and colour).
Volpini’s fairground café must have been bustling with customers in need of refreshment and somewhere to rest their weary feet. Few, except for friends of the artists, would have come for the art, which at any rate would have been regularly obscured by the crowds. The only surviving image of the interior is a print of a gypsy orchestra performing in the café, with a handful of paintings just visible on the wall behind them; not surprisingly, very few (if any) of the pictures were sold (Fig. 2). In resurrecting the Volpini show, Cleveland and Amsterdam faced two challenges. The first of these – the scholarly dimension of the project – was to reconstruct what had been displayed in 1889.
Their main source was the original slim catalogue, which lists the artists and records short titles for their paintings. It has proved possible to identify just over half of the 96 pictures, and the catalogue therefore provides an important record of the Volpini show, with published contemporary references and extracts of relevant correspondence. The second – and more difficult – challenge was to devise an ‘exhibition about an exhibition’ which succeeds in visual terms and has popular appeal. This was met by putting the spotlight on Gauguin, who was quickly acknowledged as the greatest of the Volpini artists. 1889 announced a critical juncture in Gauguin’s artistic development – partly under the influence of his Parisian colleagues (some of whom also worked with him in Pont-Aven, Brittany), Gauguin was moving away from Impressionism toward Symbolism.
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