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Paris Exhibitions Winter/Spring 2003

Breton Peasant Woman
Breton Peasant Woman
Gauguin, Paul
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The centenary of Gauguin's death (in the Marquesas Islands, 1903) is the occasion for the largest exhibition ever made in France on this subject — 70 paintings plus numerous drawings, etchings and sculptures coming from private and public collections: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Art, Indianapolis; Phoenix Art Museum; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Musée Prieuré Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye; Musée de Beaux-Arts, Quimper; Musée Chartreuse, Douai; Museo de Bellas Artes Buenos Aires; Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, Paris; Musée Léon-Dierx, Saint Denis Réunion; Rau Foundation, Zurich; Musée des Beaux Arts de Rennes; Wilumsen Museum, Frederikssund, Denmark.


This exhibition, devoted to the discovery of Brittany by the Post-Impressionists, projects us into the dynamic event of collective creation through the alchemy of a group of minds meeting in a place of complex significance. It was a period that led to a new art style that could integrate the personal view of the artist as well as his method into the larger scope of a school of painting.
Here, therefore, the personal style of the painters was governed by a certain point of view shared by the components of the group that met in Pont-Aven in the1880's. The shared view that gave birth to the style of Pont-Aven consisted mainly of abandoning the analytic character of the Impressionist work. The Impressionists' concentration on the fleeting visual aspect of reality was deliberately replaced by a holistic approach that is more conceptual and more permanent.
Their technique evolved from the early Impressionist works influenced by Pissarro, as well as some Divisionist work inspired by Seurat, and mostly Post-Impressionist work of Cézanne and Van Gogh. It achieved a more simplified and symbolic use of the palette with colors 'being' instead of imitating the world. Color was used much like a hieroglyphic alphabet: yellow signified light, purity, hope, the harvest, the abundance, the endeavor and the sacrifice; blue was darkness, profundity, mystery, spirituality; and the people of Pont-Aven symbolized what gives life, depth, volume and meaning, what gives a landscape its character and significance. Although later on Gauguin did not see himself as a symbolist: "I have done my duty, and if my works don't survive, the memory of an artist will linger on: an artist who liberated painting of many of its previous academic and Symbolist (another type of sentimentality) flaws."
The group's point of convergence, the town of Pont-Aven in Brittany, was an unusual setting that had kept it's medieval charm; it was like a magic star that pointed at the destiny of each artist, bringing out each painter's characteristic style. The group included several young artists such as Sérusier and Bernard, but its life and soul was the 40 year-old Gauguin, the chief theoretician. The younger men generally showed far more intellectual inclinations than Gauguin, who was formerly a rich stock broker who followed his savage instinct, and in search of primitive purity abandoned wealth and easy bourgeois life to become the first prophet of the Nabis, inspiring the group without being an active partner.
The adventure of Pont-Aven was to become the decisive meeting point of theory and practice for Gauguin who, having seen Emile Bernard paint from memory, was definitely converted. He left the visual imitators and joined the conceptual branch of art; without shedding all form to become abstract, he nevertheless reduced form and color to a series of personalized symbols. Convinced that painting is a kind of synthesis of what you feel and imagine, and the expression of its formal manifestations, his aim was to arrive at the perfect bond between form and content, the ultimate synthesis of mind and matter.
Pont-Aven had a strange exotic attraction for painters even as early as 1860. It was first discovered by British painters in search of picturesque motifs, and later witnessed an influx of artists coming from all corners of the globe to fill its narrow streets. Gauguin, at the time very much under the influence of the Impressionists, was flat broke and disillusioned from previous trips (e.g. to Denmark), but having heard that one can live there inexpensively, arrived there first in 1886 and soon made a few friends amongst the local painters, although he did not settle completely and continued to travel.
After two more years of hardship in Martinique and Panama he came back to Brittany in 1888, this time with a more open mind: "I love Brittany. I find savagery and primitiveness here. When my clogs resonate on the granite ground I hear the muted, flat and powerful tonality that I search for in painting."
It was during the summer of 1888 that Gauguin and Emile Bernard developed the technique that they called 'synthetism' which would integrate symbolic content and formal expression, borrowing from Japanese prints, or even stained glass. Theirs was an art reminiscent of the visual experience, freed from earthly notions of perspective, with 'compartments' of pure flat color encircled with black. You can say that an osmosis was taking place between Emile Bernard and Gauguin.
Painting from memory, using flat colors chosen for their 'sonority', in search of a pure and primeval spirituality that he felt he could find only in the medieval Celtic aspects of Brittany, Bernard was in search of the revelation beneath the technique and dared to do away with the imitation of volume, space or the effect of light. In his paintings everything exists per se rather than being a reflection of something else, and while this shocked Gauguin at first, it definitely converted him (the 1888 'Vision after the Sermon—Jacob wrestling with the Angel' of Gauguin was inspired by 'Breton Women in a Green Field' of Emile Bernard from an earlier date the same year, and Gauguin admitted having been shocked by it).
It was in this same year that Serusier painted the landscape of 'Bois d'Amour' mesmerized by Gauguin's words : 'How do you see this tree? Is it green, then use green, the greenest of your palette. Is the shadow blue? Then go ahead and use pure blue'.
The aesthetic foundation of the School of Pont-Aven was thus established, and from then on it attracted other figures such as Sérusier, the founder of the future Nabis with Maurice Denis. Others joined the movement, some attracted to the stylistic innovation, such as Maufra, others to the introduction of the new spiritual dimension, such as Filiger, or its Expressionistic or formal possibilities, such as Meyer de Hahn. And there were still many others who came to Pont-Aven and were touched by the brilliance of the meteorite named Gauguin.
Gauguin himself returned often to Brittany in 1889 and 1890, but moving nearer to the sea at Pouldu, where he decorated the dining room for the owner of his lodgings, Marie Henry, in Meyer de Haan's company. But, when he returned to pick up his paintings that were 'pawned' to the Henrys, they refused to give them back and he lost the court case against them. In 1895 he left Brittany forever, deeply embittered, and started to prepare his move to Tahiti. Of the initial group, only Serusier, Jourdan and Filiger remained in Pont-Aven.
Even if he did not manage to retrieve his canvases from Pont-Aven, Gauguin took back with him an original style in form and color, a synthesis of a quasi-decorative background, tending to abstraction, contrasting with heavy earthly forms of somber primitiveness (e.g. 'Aha oe Feh' or 'Might you be jealous?' of 1892). He also took with him a larger spiritual dimension of cosmic proportions ('d'où venons nous, que sommes nous, où allons nous' of 1897). This metamorphosis of the man and his work would not have been possible had he not met with the Pont-Aven crowd.
Sérusier took root in Pont-Aven, like the trees of his landscape of 'Bois d'Amour', and settled with a new style (flat, pure colors on the verge of abstraction) and a new aesthetic (keep only the essential from the motif, substitute the image by its symbol, start with an inner concept rather than the servile representation of nature). This led to the foundation of the 'Nabis' group of painters that included Maurice Denis, Bonnard and Vuillard.
As for the pivotal figure of Emile Bernard, known as the primitive William Morris, he will remain in art history as the audacious visionary whose meeting with Gauguin at the critical junction of Pont-Aven created a historic turning-point that indicated the future path of painting.

Biographical Notes

1848: Birth of Paul Gauguin in Paris from a Peruvian Creole mother. He spends most of his youth in Lima.
1864: Birth of Sérusier
1868: Birth of Emile Bernard.
1872: Gauguin works successfully as a stockbroker, but takes up painting in his spare time.
1874: Gauguin meets Pissarro and is sufficiently impressed with the current art movement at the first Impressionist exhibition, that he begins to collect Impressionist works.
1876: First exhibition of Gauguin's work in the Salon.
1879: Gauguin takes part in the fourth exhibition of the Impressionists.
1881: Painter Moret stays in Pouldu in Brittany.
1883: Gauguin gives up his stockbroking job to take up painting full-time. He is obliged to gradually sell off his art collection to support himself.
1884: Gauguin stays first in Rouen and then joins his family in Copenhagen.
1886: Having participated with Schuffenecker in the last Impressionists exhibition in Paris, Gauguin travels on the 6th July to Pont-Aven and meets Granchi-Taylor, Laval, Delavallée and du Puigaudeau. He meets Emile Bernard in August of the same year. The publication of 'The Manifesto of Symbolism' in the 'Figaro Littéraire' dates from this year. Mid-October, Gauguin returns to Paris and makes ceramics in company with Chaplet, and meets Vincent van Gogh in November.
1887: Bernard and Anquetin invent 'Cloisonnisme' in Asnières. Gauguin and Laval travel to Panama and later to Martinique. As for Emile Bernard he travels to Saint-Briac and then to Pont-Aven.
1888: During Gauguin's second visit to Pont-Aven, staying from January to October, he meets Delavallée and Chamaillard, and exchanges letters with the Van Gogh brothers. From July Laval, Moret and Jourdan join him in Pont-Aven where Gauguin and Bernard invent 'Synthetism'.
1889: Inauguration of the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Gauguin and his friends exhibit their work at the café Volpini from June to October. End of May Gauguin goes back to Pont-Aven and Pouldu and stays at Marie Henry's lodging, where de Haan and Gauguin decorate the dining room in November of this year.
1890: Gauguin travels to Brittany for the fourth time and meets Sérusier, de Haan and Filiger, and perhaps Maufra. The publication of 'Neo-Traditionalism' by Maurice Denis.
1891: Gauguin and Bernard in disagreement, meeting last in February after the auction of Gauguin's work. Aurier publishes in the Mercure de France 'Symbolism in painting, Paul Gauguin'. A banquet is given in honor of Gauguin in April, just before he leaves France for Tahiti. Others such as Sérusier, Verkade, Ballin and Seguin go to Pont-Aven. The first Nabis exhibition, held at the Le Barc de Boutteville Gallery, dates from this year. Maufra and Filiger remain in Pouldu and Emile Bernard is in Saint-Briac.
1892: Bernard and Amiet are in Pont-Aven.
1893: Gauguin returns to France and exhibits at Durand-Ruel. Vollard opens a gallery exhibiting Impressionist works as well as work by Gauguin. Maufra publishes an essay of free art, entitled 'Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven'. Marie Henry rents her lodging and takes Gauguin's work as security.
1894: Fifth and last stay of Gaugin in Pouldu and Pont-Aven where he meets with Filiger, Maufra, Slwinski, Seguin, Moret, Jourdan and Chamaillard. End of May, Gauguin is wounded in Concarneau and on the 14th November he looses his court case against Marie Henry and his Concarneau attackers.
1895: Gauguin leaves France for the last time and heads for Tahiti; death of his friend De Haan.
1901: Gauguin travels to the Marquesas Islands, settling at Atuona on the Island of Hivaoa.
1903: Death of Paul Gauguin in Atuona.

Source for the Biographical data: Catalog of the exhibition.

Art Lovers Paris
April 2003