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The Universal Exposition of 1889 and the Art of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau

Thursday, November 11, 2010
12:30 PM

From May to November 1889, the city of Paris was transformed by the Universal Exposition, as two hundred acres were given over to the celebration of the world’s latest technologies, international art and artifacts, and, perhaps most strikingly, the display of French colonialist power. Staged in the form of dozens of picturesquely reconstructed settlements, complete with “native inhabitants” going about their “typical” activities, it was described by one observer as a “magic carpet”: “Here you are transported, according to your caprice, from Cairo to the Americas, from the Congo to Cochin China from Tunisia to Java, from Annam to Algeria.” No one remained untouched by the magnificent and dream-like spectacle, which drew over 28,000,000 visitors. Among these were artists Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, and the Norwegian Edvard Munch, who were known to have returned again and again during the Exposition’s seven-month run, making sketches, buying postcards, and writing letters to friends and colleagues expressing their profound experiences. Clearly impacted by what they had seen and felt, these three artists pushed the boundaries of Modernism in new and significant ways in the years immediately following. Using the 1889 Universal Exposition as a historical lens, this talk explores the inspiration each artist drew from the event, and identifies specific sources referenced in famous works in MoMA’s collection, including Gauguin’s The Seed of the Areoii, Rousseau’s The Jungle, and Munch’s The Scream. It also considers these painters’ eclectic method of incorporating and pastiching (essentially collaging) “the exotic” in their art in relation to the colonialist practice of exhibiting the “other” at nineteenth-century World’s Fairs.

Larissa Bailiff (PhD, ABD, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University) is a specialist in nineteenth-century French art and social history. Formerly an associate educator at MoMA, she has also taught courses at both the Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute.

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