The paintings and the dramatic tale of Paul Gauguin’s life draw so much attention that his talents as a sculptor, ceramist, and printmaker are often overshadowed. This spring the IMA adjusts that imbalance by unveiling a rare set of eleven prints by Gauguin, recently added to the museum’s superb collection of works by artists of the Pont-Aven School.
In January 1889 Gauguin was back in Paris after two months in Arles with Vincent van Gogh. He wrote to Vincent that he was creating the prints “with the aim of making myself better known.” Gauguin was also organizing an exhibition for summer 1889 to take advantage of the large crowds that would visit the Exposition Universelle in Paris. This world’s fair was designed to flaunt French cultural and industrial might, and its signature attraction was the 300-meter tower of Gustave Eiffel. Gauguin and his friends were not accepted into the official exhibition in the fair’s arts pavilion, so they appealed to Monsieur Volpini, who had opened a café within the fairgrounds. When the mirrors he had ordered to decorate the café failed to arrive, Volpini agreed to display their work.
Gauguin’s album of prints made their debut at that exhibition, and they have come to be known as the Volpini Suite. That occasion also marked the first time that paintings reflecting the progressive ideas of Gauguin and other artists of the Pont-Aven School were publicly displayed. His prints were listed at the end of the small catalogue as “viewable upon request.” This modest citation was the first reference to a body of work that now stands as one of the most important graphic projects of 19th-century France.
The technical achievement of the Volpinis is even more remarkable given that they were Gauguin’s first attempt at printmaking. The prints are zincographs, a variation of lithography that calls for drawing on zinc plates rather than heavy lithographic stones. The challenges of this medium clearly appealed to Gauguin, and he approached his plunge into printmaking with confidence, daring to work on the zinc surfaces that make it more difficult to keep an image intact. He appreciated the rough, grainy textures of zincographs and intensified the results by printing on brilliant canary yellow paper. Working with a brush or pen, Gauguin applied washes, called lavis or tusche, to add rich tonal variety. These works made him a key contributor to the printmaking revival of late 19th-century France, when artists, reacting to the proliferation of photo-mechanical reproductive prints, championed the fully original, limited-edition print. Gauguin probably made thirty to forty sets of the eleven-piece suite.
The Volpini Suite draws upon Gauguin’s travels to Martinique, Brittany, and Arles. He had, as yet, not ventured to Tahiti. Many motifs were adapted from his paintings inspired by those locales, and they provide stunning examples of how cleverly the artist transferred images from one medium to another. While on one level the prints depict scenes from everyday life, their underlying themes are often ironic references to guilt and pleasure, fear, hope, sexuality and doubt.
Acquisition of the Volpini Suite fulfills a long-term goal for the IMA, where the prints enjoy a uniquely appropriate context. They are the ideal complement to the paintings in the museum’s Pont-Aven School Collection, recognized as the finest in America. Gauguin’s bold experiment in printmaking also provides a basis for thematic, stylistic, and technical links to the IMA’s extensive collection of graphics by other members of the School. As a group, the Volpini prints offer a vivid survey of Gauguin’s work at a critical juncture in his career, and they point us toward themes and motifs that will inspire the next fourteen years of his creative life.
Gauguin as Printmaker: The Volpini Suite opens this Friday, March 11, in the Golden Gallery on the second floor. Tonight at 7pm join Dr. Heather Lemonedes, Curator of Drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, for a revealing talk on the connections in his work.