Europe's Artists Didn't Wait For A Common Market

In 1893, painters crossed borders and ideas, as shown in an exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay

THE opening in January of Europe's frontiers to "the free circulation of people and goods" has inspired an exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay. It's called "1893: l'Europe des Peintres."

This museum, devoted to 19th-century art, brings together for the show 93 paintings from all over Europe. The question behind the exhibition is: What did the word "European" mean to artists 100 years ago?

Concentrating on one year makes an artificial framework for a historical study. But it has also made a surprisingly fresh exhibition. This is not least because it includes unfamiliar painters among more usual ones: Well-knowns like Monet or Gauguin rub shoulders with relatively unknown artists from Russia, Greece, Hungary, and Britain.

This approach involves an admission that France - Paris in particular - was not the be-all and end-all of the art world.

It was truly an extraordinary era for French painting, and Paris was still the magnet for all serious artists, but this unchauvinistic exhibition vividly demonstrates how influential ideas and practices were pan-European.

No drawings are included, no sculpture, or architecture. Only at the end of the catalog are these wider aspects chronicled; here is also a chronology of political and social events, of literature, music, book illustration, decorative arts, photography, even of the poster - but these are not in the exhibition.

The year 1893 is made to act as a symbol of its period rather than as having some special claim to fame. But limiting the period to 12 months points up one intriguing fact: how quickly current information traveled. Exhibitions, articles, correspondence, and travel made the European art community astonishingly close-knit. Isolated artists, for instance, some in Russia or Italy, look like the exceptions that prove the rule.

In contrast, the European art community of 1993, in spite of TV, art magazines, The Art Newspaper, and so forth, seems far less in touch with itself, less aware, at least, of "the latest thing." It is true that the latest thing in 1893 is likely to have taken place first in Paris; but other centers were surfacing as well - Munich and Vienna, for example.

It might seem that such centralization was at odds with another strong tendency: for artists to form communities in attractive places away from cities. Pont-Aven is famous as the haunt of Gauguin and his admirers. This was also the time when St. Ives in Cornwall, England, was establishing itself as an artists' mecca, and Skagen at the northmost tip of Denmark was a buzzing colony of painters.

The artists who visited or lived in such places, however, did keep in touch with the center. And even when Gauguin went to greater extremes by decamping to Tahiti, his base was still Paris. In fact it was in September 1893 that he came back from the South Seas to the French capital for a while to drum up interest in his art and ideas, before returning the following year to his paradise.

The lengthy catalog notes include a paragraph labeled "Presence in Europe in 1893." These paragraphs give a striking picture of how well and widely exhibited many of the artists were even in this one year.

Gauguin had works in five exhibitions, one of them in Copenhagen, the rest in Paris. The British painter of allegories, Edward Burne-Jones, had work shown in six exhibitions, mainly in Britain, but also in Paris and Munich. Swedish painter Anders Zorn exhibited works in six shows, mostly in Paris, but also in London, Brussels, and Munich.

SOME of the artists traveled extensively. Zorn had an international reputation as a portrait painter, and it is in a section of the Musee d'Orsay exhibition called "Artists, writers, and musicians, the portrait" that he is represented.

The portrait included is a vividly painted image of his wife in a red dress posed in his studio in Paris. It was painted there early in the year, before he set out for the United States via London.

The traveling that Zorn did was perhaps unusual, but many of the artists in the exhibition moved around Europe persistently. Zorn was to revisit the United States six more times, painting many portraits there. He also worked at different times in Stockholm, London, St. Ives, and traveled in Germany, Hungary, Turkey, and North Africa. He returned to his rural birthplace, Mora, in Sweden, in 1896: the place he loved most intensely. But he went on traveling.

This exhibition's interest in background, in the social context of art, is characteristic of our period.

It is also characteristic of the Musee d'Orsay, where outstanding heroes are shown to be part of an entire art world, and they are not allowed to be seen as giants among pygmies. Thus in this show, Monet's "Rouen Cathedral" paintings are just part of a section called "Inspired places: European landscape." They keep company with a number of Scandinavian and other paintings, which fit into this category because they instill landscape with mystique, or some sort of divine element.

Also in this section is a mood-laden landscape by the Russian Isaac Levitan, called "Au-dessus du repos eternel" - replete with religious overtones. So, we may conclude, Monet's "Rouen" paintings are not, as usually thought, merely studies of changing light and weather. They are images of a profoundly sacred monument, of an inspired place.

Well, maybe.

* `1893: l'Europe des Peintres' continues at the Musee d'Orsay until May 23.

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