The Expositions universelles were a series of mammoth events staged by the French state every eleven years from 1855 to 1900 that were designed to bring the world to France and showcase the best of French industry and culture to the world. Today little remains of the 1889 fair except the imposing wrought-iron entrance arch, otherwise known as the Eiffel Tower, but an altogether different legacy was left by a small, ad hoc exhibition that took place almost completely unnoticed at the time.
Ambitious artists were not slow in recognising the commercial opportunities presented by the fair, and both Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin put on shows specifically to take advantage of the millions of visitors expected to visit Paris. With his keen sense of timing and strategy Paul Gauguin saw the potential too, yet his ambition was not to stage an event alongside the fair, but to infiltrate the showground itself. It would be nothing less than an artistic guerilla raid on the establishment and the state sanctioned artists of the Académie des Beaux-Arts on display in the grand halls.
The venue for the show, which Gauguin and a hastily assembled group of artists planned, was decided by a seemingly insignificant event - the failure of an order of mirrors to appear in time to decorate one of the many cafes set up to cater for visitors. The proprietor of the cafe, one Monsieur Volpini, was persuaded by Gauguin acolyte mile Schuffenecker to fill his Grand Café des Beaux-Arts with the work of the Groupe Impressionniste et Synthetiste, as they styled themselves, instead. The idea of showing art in popular eating houses was not new - it had been employed by Van Gogh - and no doubt he and Gauguin discussed the tactic during their time together in Arles in 1888. The exhibition, forever known as the Volpini Exhibition, opened in summer 1889. Although barely commented on at the time it can now be seen as one of the defining moments in Gauguin's career and a turning point for the artists he influenced.
The idea of supplementing his contribution of seventeen canvases with a portfolio of prints was supported if not prompted by one Gauguin's most important advocates, Theo Van Gogh, Vincent's younger brother and manager of the gallery Boussod, Valadon & Cie. The commercial possibilities of print portfolios was already well established, having been used successfully by Manet, Fantin-Latour and above all Odilon Redon to spread awareness amongst influential opinion formers such as critics and authors, as well as a way to generate a regular source of income. These portfolios were part of a wider movement to rehabilitate printmaking, in particular lithography, as a vehicle for original artistic expression rather than simply reproduction. Keenly aware of printmakings commercial and aesthetic appeal, Theo had contributed to this movement with his publication of Georges William Thornley's Quinze lithographies d'apres Degas in 1889. The success of the album may have been behind Theo's decision to direct Gauguin toward printmaking.
In terms of subject matter, the eleven prints (one of which is a design for the cover of the portfolio, missing here) that made up the suite, which, like the show, was christened Volpini, are linked to travels Gauguin made to Brittany, Martinique and Arles between 1886 and 1888. The impressions those places made on him were a powerful artistic stimulus that in each case signaled a change of direction in his work. The Volpini subjects are based upon these impressions, and constitute translations and reinterpretations of paintings, drawings and ceramics they inspired. Ostensibly the overarching theme is people in their daily surroundings: Breton peasant women chatting, Martinican women carrying baskets of fruit, or Arlesiennes out walking. But clearly they are pervaded by a growing fascination with 'authentic' rural life, the pursuit of which was to famously lead him to Tahiti and ultimately his dissolution in the islands of the Marquesas. It is this pivotal aspect, at once distilling his artistic past and at the same time pointing the way to his future development, that explains the important position of the Suite Volpini within Gauguin's oeuvre.
The technique employed, that of lithography printed from zinc plates, may have been brought to Gauguin's attention by Emile Bernard, who had experimented with the technique as early as 1888 and whose portfolio Les Bretonneries was also to feature in the Volpini show. But wherever it came from, as a first attempt at printmaking the decision was a daring and ambitious one, particularly as he made extensive use of dilute lithographic ink known as tusche. Notoriously difficult to control it nevertheless offered the greatest potential for visual expression. The impressive range of textures and values he achieved (including the wonderfully named peau de crapaud, or toad skin) demonstrates a precocious sensitivity and refinement of technique. He worked on them for a period of about six weeks early in 1889, and although he did not number the eleven prints that finally made up the suite, it is possible to suggest a chronology based upon the refinement of technique and evolution of style.
Gauguin's choice of large sheets of canary yellow paper is one of the most remarkable aspects of the suite. He gave no explanation for it, and it has been the subject of much speculation. It has been suggested that it reflected his appreciation of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, of which he was a collector, and that the vibrant hue rivaled the bright colored wrappings of Japanese albums, or it may have intended to evoke the appearance of popular posters of the period. It has also been suggested that it relates to Van Gogh, with whom he famously spent nine weeks the year before. Or it might simply have been an attempt to provoke comment and controversy, another ruse to raise his profile and burnish his mold-breaking credentials.The large size of the paper is unusual too, and perhaps he intended the prints to be viewed without being matted, so that the designs would float on a field of vibrating yellow.
From an immediate commercial perspective, the show was an almost total disaster; 'nothing sold' was one embittered summation. In terms of Gauguin's relations with his confreres, it had distinctly unhappy ramifications too. But in terms of his reputation amongst a small coterie of critics, and certainly the aura which surrounded him in the eyes of younger artists who followed him, the show, and the prints it brought forth, mark an important point in the growth of his personal mythology. It has been said that this was when he 'became Gauguin'.