CMA's Gauguin show is a revelation

The spectacular, enlightening and highly accessible new exhibition, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889, that opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Sunday, was sparked by curator Heather Lemonedes’ doctoral dissertation. Lemonedes, the museum’s assistant curator of prints and drawings, was researching Gauguin’s series of 11 zincograph prints known as the Volpini Suite. They were part of an exhibition mounted by Gauguin and a group of his friends at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (the one for which the Eiffel Tower was built), and marked a definitive moment in the development of Gauguin’s style.

Lemonedes, together with guest carator Agnieska Juszczak of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum (the only other place the exhibit will appear) and Gauguin expert Belinda Thomson of the University of Edinburgh, has assembled a show focused on that 1889 salon, which hung in a restaurant called the Café des Arts run by a Monsieur Volpini. Like many contemporary exhibits whose curators understand that the average person doesn’t necessarily have the knowledge to make connections, the show provides copious backstory and explanations. It opens with a room devoted to the exposition itself, including the construction of the Eiffel Tower, setting the context for the project by Gauguin and his friends whose styles were considered too avant-garde for the exposition’s more conservative official art exhibition. It offers a selection of not only Gauguin’s paintings that were shown but also those of his lesser known colleagues, showing how they influenced each other, and especially the influence of the rugged coast of Brittany where many of them spent time working and painting together.

This work will come as a surprise to those who know Gauguin only superficially from his Tahitian paintings; the somewhat gloomy, staid, hard-working hyper-religious culture of Brittany couldn’t be more different from that of Tahiti. Yet they’ll recognize the basic elements of his style — the way he used paint, the way he filled space, repeated images that interested him, like the backs of women bathers.

The Volpini Suite, the subject of two full rooms, is also a wellspring of information about Gauguin’s key artistic interests, as he appears to have distilled them into these 11 prints. Among the coups in the show is the reuniting for the first time of a hand-colored version of the series that Gauguin did, with 10 of the prints in display. Lemonedes says that the location of the 11th is a mystery. It may be lost or it may be in a private collection somewhere, and she’s hoping that this show might smoke it out if it still exists.
One of the intriguing aspects of the show is all the painters’ sympathetic fascination with women as their prime subject, women who were neither idealized nor debased, but depicted in all their diversity of roles, modes and personalities. The show is full of discoveries: wood carvings by Gauguin that reflect the themes in his paintings; a self-portrait that depicts in the background the painting “In the Waves,” now in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection and the exhibition’s signature image (it was part of the 1889 exhibition).

Another way that art museums have tried to make shows most user-friendly is to make them more interactive, beyond simply the old rented-headphones/recorded-lecture thing. A table in the Volpini Suite room holds a volume of reproductions of the prints that visitors can handle and flip through — in the way that the originals were kept behind the bar at the Café des Arts for potential viewers to handle. There’s a crafts table in the final room where visitors can make clay sculptures or their own Gauguin “print” with crayons and rubber stamps — and hang the finished work on a nearby wall.

Tickets are $12 adults, $10 college students and seniors, $6 ages 6-18. The show runs through January 18. — Anastasia Pantsios

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