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Cafe culture: Martin Bailey reports on an 'exhibition about an exhibition' that reveals much about Gauguin's artistic development.

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 cafe. The proprietor of the Cafe 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 cafe 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 Leon Fauche. On the small poster advertising the display they described themselves as the Groupe Impressionniste et Synthetiste ('synthetism' being characterised by a simplification of form and colour).

Volpini's fairground cafe 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 cafe, 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.



In Amsterdam the exhibition opens in a large gallery scattered with dozens of cafe chairs--an attempt not so much to reconstruct the Volpini setting as to evoke its atmosphere. Here a selection of pictures by the eight artists in the 1889 show is presented, emphasising how different their style was from that of the realist Salon painters. Of the 17 works by Gauguin shown in the Cafe des Arts, 13 have since been identified. In Amsterdam seven of these are shown, highlighting the practical difficulty of reconstructing historical exhibitions when paintings have ended up in inaccessible private collections or are unavailable from museums on loan. Looking at images of the 13 identified pictures, as presented in a spread in the catalogue, most are landscapes (done in Martinique, Pont-Aven and Aries) and all date from 1887-89. For customers at Volpini's cafe, the most challenging of these must have been In the Waves (now at the Cleveland Museum of Art), which in dramatic colours depicts a bather leaping into breaking ocean waves, part of her body cut off by the composition--an innovation that Gauguin had picked up from Japanese prints. Also on display in Amsterdam is a set of Gauguin's first prints, now known as the Volpini Suite. (Although they were not hung in the original cafe, a portfolio could be viewed there on request.) This set of 11 images, 10 of which are zincographs (i.e., drawn on zinc plates), are based on images which recur in Gauguin's work at this time. As the catalogue explains, they constitute a sort of 'calling card, a sampler of motifs'. With research having now clarified the order in which the prints were made, we can see that Gauguin's technique improved as he went along. Previously it was assumed that they had been printed by Edward Ancourt, but they are now believed to have been executed by another Parisian printer, Labbe. The 1889 edition of the zincographs was produced on yellow paper: it is suggested that this was done under the influence of Van Gogh, who sang the praises of the colour (a later edition on white paper, produced by Ambroise Vollard, is now dated to 1911).

In the upper gallery of the Amsterdam presentation, the focus switches to the iconography of the Volpini Suite, with examples taken from Gauguin's oeuvre (and that of his close colleagues) in the years just before and after 1889. Four themes are examined: Breton peasant women, bathers, Arlesiennes and exotic places. The display emphasises how Gauguin followed up an idea in different media--oil paintings, drawings, watercolours and sculptures. Along with the more expected works are some delightful surprises. These include a previously unpublished watercolour caricature, by Emile Bernard, of Gauguin imperiously sitting on a throne (lent by New York Egyptologist William Kelly Simpson). Also on show is a Gauguin watercolour in blue of a sinister face, once thought to be that of his friend Meyer de Haan but now said to represent Gauguin, on loan from the Dutch-based Triton Foundation (Fig. 1). Most striking of all is a powerful Gauguin gouache, watercolour and pastel of 1889 entitled The Bathing Place, on loan from a Polish private collection (Fig. 3). A woman with auburn hair faces a pool of green water, while another woman swims in the distance. In The Bathing Place one sees a theme and style that Gauguin would soon develop, far away from Paris in the South Seas.


'Paul Gauguin: The Breakthrough into Modernity: Cleveland Museum of Art, 4 October 2009-18 January 2010; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 19 February-6 June 2010. Catalogue by Heather Lemonedes, et al., ISBN 9789079310135 (English edition), 32.50 [euro], (Hatje Cantz Verlag).

Martin Bailey is a Van Gogh specialist and correspondent of The Art Newspaper.
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Title Annotation:Paul Gauguin
Author:Bailey, Martin
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 1, 2010
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