Friday, October 2, 2009

Gauguin Exhibition at the CMA

Alas, no van Gogh exhibitions opening this fall in the U.S., but opening Sunday October 4th is "Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889" at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The museum website describes the show thusly: "This landmark exhibition gathers about 75 paintings, works on paper, woodcarvings, and ceramics by Paul Gauguin and his contemporaries to explore how the artist created his signature style during the year 1889. Co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 re-creates on a smaller scale the radical independent exhibition that Gauguin organized with his artistic disciples on the grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle—a display of about 100 paintings now recognized as the first Symbolist exhibition in Paris."

The "radical independent exhibition" is the so-called Volpini show, which Gauguin organized together with fellow avant-garde artists Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Louis Anquetin, and a few others. It was conceived as a reaction to the French art exhibition at the Universal Exposition, which was limited only to Salon painters and similarly well-established artists. Gauguin chose as a venue for the exhibition the Café des Arts -- run by a Monsieur Volpini -- on the actual grounds of the Universal Exposition, thus thumbing his nose at the establishment. The exhibition ran from May through July 1889, included a small catalogue, and was seen by contemporary critics.

At this time, Vincent had just entered the asylum of Saint-Rémy. His brother Theo did not submit any of Vincent's work to the show, believing it to be an upstart and unseemly enterprise, and in fact did not tell Vincent about it. However, somehow Vincent did learn of it and mentioned it casually in a letter to Theo of early June. Theo responded, "At first I had said you would exhibit some things too, but they assumed an air of being such tremendous fellows that it made one sick...It gave one somewhat the impression of going to the Universal Exhibition by the back stairs" (T10). In his reply, Vincent agreed that it was probably best his work not be shown ("My not yet being recovered is reason enough") but defended Gauguin and Bernard: "It remains very understandable that for beings like would be impossible to turn all their canvases to the wall until it should please people to admit them into something, into the official stew. You cause a stir by exhibiting in cafés" (LT595).

Gauguin himself learned of Theo's disapproval via their mutual friend Émile Schuffenecker. Writing from Pont-Aven in Brittany on June 10--where he'd gone after the show's opening--he defends the show and states, "I organized this little exhibition at the Universelle to show what can be done together and to demonstrate the possibilities." Unfortunately, we do not have Theo's reply to Gauguin.

"Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889" will be at CMA until 18 January 2010, after which it will travel to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

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