Nothing beats the drama of rags to riches, and art history is full of humble beginnings that end up as star turns. In 1889, Monsieur Volpini's Café des Arts, located at that year's big Exposition Universelle in the center of Paris, seemed an unlikely venue for enduring art. Yet it was here that the movement later known as symbolism began to grow legs. The eight artists of the "Groupe Impressioniste et Synthetiste" who mounted an exhibit in the café were led by 41-year old Paul Gauguin and included Émile Bernard. The members were united in their rejection of the era's dominant realist, often sentimental trends, setting out to find relationships between formal and psychological elements.
Cleveland Museum of Art associate curator Heather Lemonedes, working in cooperation with the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum's Agnieszka Juszczak, has put together a landmark show that re-creates this seminal moment in art history. The exhibit Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889, currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, shows some of the 94 works shown at Volpini's establishment that year. Since this was something of a salon de refusés, Lemonedes also assembles works by painters invited to show at the Exposition, notably Emile Renouf and his gold-medal-winning "The Widow of the Island of Sein," a heavy-handed painting which Gauguin derisively referred to as "a novel in paint."
But the focus is on two of Gauguin's works that were central to the Volpini Exhibit. One is the splendid "In the Waves" from the museum's own permanent collection. It depicts a nude, red-haired female bather seen from behind, flattened dramatically against a Japanese-influenced green wave. Then there are the 11 zincographs of the so-called Volpini Suite, printed on large yellow sheets of paper. They summarize the themes that preoccupied Gauguin during his 1880s sojourns in Martinique, Arles and Brittany, and would later feed into the lush primitivism of his most famous works, completed during the subsequent decade in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.
Appropriately, the CMA exhibit is accompanied by a show of contemporary art produced by Cleveland Institute of Art students, displayed in the Museum café. A suite of eight zincographs, printed like Gauguin's on searingly yellow paper, were done as part of a CIA workshop. Ten other installations in an adjacent room include conceptual works like Will Laughlin's "Standard Shipping Error," which imagines an alternative-universe Volpini show of mirrors damaged in transit (the original show was made possible when a shipment of mirrors intended for Volpini's walls was delayed) and Barbara Polster's video "Beneath Beside," in which a young woman unearths poppies from underneath kitchen tiles. Maybe after another century, art historians will be handling these works with white gloves. It's happened before.