Art in Europe,  English

Post-Impressionism Part 2: On the road to Absynthe

The end of the nineteenth century also saw the birth of a new science: ethnography. In 1882 the ethnographical museum was opened in Paris and in 1893 an exhibition of Central America took place in Madrid. In 1898 during a punitive expedition to the British African colonies, the English rediscovered Benin and its strange art long after the
Portuguese discovery in the fifteenth century. The art works in gold of the indigenous Peruvian and Mexican populations, which had flooded Europe in the sixteenth century after the discovery of America and had scarcely been noticed by the art world; it was nothing more than precious metal to be melted down. The expansion of European boundaries at the end of the nineteenth century opened incredible aesthetic horizons to painters. Classic antiquity
ceased to be the only source of inspiration for figurative art. What O. Spengler later called the ‘decline of Europe’, which implied the end of pan-Europeanism in the widest sense of the word, had immediate effects on art.

Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House (Vincent’s House at Arles), 1888. Oil on canvas, 72 x 91.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The year 1886 marked the beginning of fundamental changes in the appearance of Paris. A competition was organised for the construction of a monument to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution (1789) which coincided with the World’s Fair. It was the project of the engineer Gustave Eiffel to build a tower which was accepted.
The idea of building a 300 metre tall metal tower in the very centre of Paris alarmed Parisians. On February 14, 1887, the newspaper Le Temps published an open letter signed by Francois Coppée, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, Sully Prudhomme, and Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera building which was finished
in 1875. They wrote: “We the writers, painters, sculptors, achitects, passionate lovers of the as yet intact beauty of Paris express our indignation and vigourously protest, in the name of French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower right in the centre of our capital. Is the city of Paris to be associated any longer with oddities and with the mercantile imagination of a machine builder, to
irreparably disfigure and dishonour it? (…) Imagine for a moment this vertiginously ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, overpowering with its bulk Notre-Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Saint-Jacques Tower, the Louvre, and the dome of Les Invalides, shaming all our monuments, dwarfing all our architecture, which will disappear in this nightmare (…) And, for twenty years, we shall see, spreading out like a blot of ink, the hateful shadow of this abominable column of bolted metal.”

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (detail), 1888. Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 92 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Nevertheless, the World’s Fair of 1889 surprised Paris with the fine beauty of Eiffel’s architecture. During the exhibition 12,000 people a day visited the tower, and later it was used for telegraphic transmissions. But more importantly it finally became one of the dominant architectural features against which it had been opposed. The city was moving towards the twentieth century, and nothing could stop its development. Given the metal market pavilions of Baltard and the railway stations, the Paris of Haussmann had no trouble adopting the Eiffel Tower.
Amongst the Post-Impressionist artists of the period, some immediately welcomed the new architectural aesthetic. For Paul Gauguin the World’s Fair was the discovery of the exotic world of the East, with its Hindu temples and its Javanese dances. But the functional purity of the pavilion construction also impressed him. Gauguin wrote a text entitled “Notes sur l’art à l’Exposition universelle,” (“Notes on Art at the World’s Fair”) which was published in Le Moderniste illustré on July 4, 1889. “A new decorative art has been invented by engineer-architects, such as ornamental bolts, iron corners extending beyond the main line, a kind of gothic iron lacework,” he wrote. “We find
this to some extent in the Eiffel Tower.” Gauguin liked the heavy and simple decoration of the tower, and its purely
industrial material. He was categorically opposed to eclecticism and a mixture of styles. The new era produced a new aesthetic:“So why paint the iron the colour of butter, why gild it like the Opera? No, that’s not good taste. Iron, iron and more iron!”.The Post-Impressionist era was to dramatically change tastes and artistic passions. In 1912 Guillaume Apollinaire already designated the Eiffel tower as the new symbol of the city, becoming in his poems a shepherd guarding the bridges of Paris.

Vincent van Gogh The Starry Night (detail), 1888. Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 92 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The year 1900 brought Paris new architectural landmarks: palaces appeared on the banks of the Seine, where pavilions for World’s Fair were traditionally built. Eugène Hénard drew up a plan for the right bank of which the principal feature was a wide avenue in the axis of the esplanade of Les Invalides and the Alexandre III Bridge. Along both sides of the avenue two pavilions were erected for the World’s Fair of 1900 – the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais – miracles of modern construction engineering. The principle of these constructions is that of a metallic structure surrounded by a façade of stone. The use of metal structures allowed decorating palaces with heavy stone and bronze sculptures in combination with painting and mosaic. These structures allowed roofs to be built over the huge spaces of the Grand Palais and to place spectacular halls for different kinds of temporary exhibitions, even industrial ones, inside. Many famous sculptors and painters of the end of nineteenth century took part in the decoration of the palace, so that it became the monument to the new style, born in the era of Post-Impressionism.

Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundry Girl, 1896. Lithograph in 5 colours, 30 x 19 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

At the same time, on the left bank of the Seine stood another palace. Well, it was not a palace as such, but the Gare d’Orsay and a hotel, built with the drawings of architect Victor Laloux. Trains were supposed to deliver visitors of the World’s Fair of 1900 directly in the centre of Paris. Contemporaries compared the station to the Petit Palais. “The station is superb, and looks like a Palais des Beaux-Arts. Just like the Palais des Beaux-Arts resembles a train station, I proposed to Laloux that he make the switch if there is still time,” wrote one of the artists after the opening of the World’s Fair. These new palaces completed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paris.

Post-Impressionism and its Contributions

Édouard Vuillard, Chestnut Trees. Distemper on cardboard mounted on canvas, 110 x 70 cm. Private collection.

The era of Post-Impressionism was the time of lone painters; only a very small number of them got together, and then only rarely. The great specialist of Impressionism, John Rewald, used the ingenious phrase of Émile Verhaeren: “There is no longer a unique school, he wrote in 1891, there are a few groups, but even they break up constantly. All these movements remind me of moving geometrical pieces in a kaleidoscope, which separate suddenly only to
better come together again. They move apart then get together, but, nevertheless, stay in the same circle – the circle of the new art.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, c. 1892-1893. Lithograph in colours, poster, 80.8 x 60.8 cm. Private collection.

They didn’t share the same opinion about art, nature or painting style. The only thing the painters had in common was the impression that Impressionism left on them: none of them could have worked in this manner, working as if Impressionism had not existed. All these artists faced the same sad fate – not one of them had a hope of ever entering the Salon and showing his work to the public. Impressionists had shown them a possible way: they created their own exhibitions, excluding from it those who were not with them. They were all very different: some did not have the necessary level of professionalism according to the jury’s rules; some shocked the public by being too bold in their style, too negligent or using colours which were too intense. A new exhibition opened in 1884 in Paris: Le Salon des artistes indépendants. The new Salon was a solution for everyone, because there was no jury and nobody was selecting works for the exhibition. Each painter could show whatever he wanted. The only condition was the number of works being shown, that number changed year after year. Georges Seurat, a Neo-Impressionist, whose unusual position made him undesirable for official exhibitions, took a very active part in organising the Salon des Indépendants. The Independents proclaimed what became the significant achievement of the Post-Impressionism era. According to the ‘Sunday’ painter Henri Rousseau, “Freedom to create must be given to initiators”. Only two years after the last Impressionists exhibition, each painter had the possibility of showing his work to a wide audience.
Although it was often hard to discover a great talent among hundreds of pieces shown there, it was that Salon that gave the opportunity to such uneducated artists as Henri Rousseau to discover the art scene. School education ceased to be an essential quality for painters; Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were also persistent, self-taught painters.
Paul Cézanne – ‘the Impressionist’ –, who was not satisfied with Impressionists’ style, also chose his own special path; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, even though he had received classical education, decided to choose a disapproved path. The work of all these painters was conceived in the era of Post-Impressionism and their lives, surprisingly, ended with the end of the century:Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, Seurat – in 1891, Lautrec – in 1901, Gauguin
in 1903, Cézanne – in 1910, the Douanier Rousseau – in 1910.

Keywords: Gauguin , Post-Impressionism , Impressionism , Vincent van Gogh , Paul Cézanne, Seurat, Lautrec, Cézanne, Douanier Rousseau, Van Gogh Museum , Musée d’Orsay, Bibliothèque nationale de France , The State Hermitage Museum , Parkstone International, Art , Painting , Amazon Australia, Amazon Italia, Amazon Japan, Amazon China, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Spain, Amazon France , Scribd

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