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
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
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. …