History Repeats Itself

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 will take museum-goers back to the year when the Eiffel Tower was brand-new, Paris was celebrating its World’s Fair and Gauguin, one of the fathers of modern art, was 41, penniless and absolutely convinced of his own genius.

“He was always completely broke and wasn’t making money from his art, really,” says Heather Lemonedes, curator of the Gauguin exhibit. “But he thought he’d be appreciated after his lifetime as a great innovator, and he is.”

In 1889, Gauguin and his friends staged an exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair, the Exhibition Universelle. “He wasn’t included in the official exhibition selected by the French state,” Lemonedes says. “He was considered kind of an avant-garde, renegade painter.”

So while academic masters showed their work in the great domed Palais des Beaux-Arts, Gauguin and his rebellious painter friends lugged their canvases to the palace in a pushcart and hung them in a cafe on the fairgrounds.

The Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition reunites several of those artworks for the first time since 1889. Gauguin paintings lent by museums in Moscow, Paris, Spain and Washington will hang next to works by his friends Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker and Charles Laval. The reunion also includes a longtime highlight of the Cleveland museum’s collection, In The Waves, a haunting painting of a red-haired woman throwing herself into the sea, which Gauguin exhibited for the first time at the cafe.

By 1889, Gauguin’s imagination had taken him beyond realism and impressionism to a new style: Art historians consider him one of the first symbolists, and the cafe show the first symbolist exhibition in Paris.

“For him, painting has to be about the arrangement of form and color on canvas, something from the artist’s inner vision,” says Lemonedes. “He’s forging a new path of what painting is going to be all about.”

The exhibit also includes works Gauguin created during his tempestuous two-month stay with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, France — where their arguments about artistic theories grew so intense, a distraught Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor then cut off a piece of his own ear.

Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 will be on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art from Oct. 4 through Jan. 18. For more information, visit clemuart.com.
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