Van Gogh typified the artist passionate about his own anguish in
an unappreciative society that alienated him to the point of
self-destruction, then Paul Gauguin was the daring, nonconformist
painter - less complicated, but equally as compelling. Driven by a
"terrible longing for things unknown", he fled a bourgeois existence
for lands unscathed by Western ideas of progress, conventions, and
rules. There, he could express himself with absolute freedom,
discovering the spirituality of civilizations that were to him
mysterious -"the only ones left that could provoke real emotions".
Gauguin came to painting at a late age and was introduced by
Pissarro into the Impressionist circle (he took part in the group's
exhibitions of 1879 and 1886). While in Brittany, a region that
conserved its popular traditions, he was stimulated by the
Anquetin. They sought to replace the
fragmented colour and fleeting nature of Impressionism with a style
that used large areas of flat, uniform colour, surrounded and
defined by thick, dark outlines - similar to the effect achieved by
stained glass. Instead of glorifying colour and light, Gauguin aimed
for a "silent harmony" of dense hues, vibrant with music, as a
background to simplified shapes with foreshortened strokes, and
completed by large, decorative arabesque lines.
After Brittany, Gauguin visited Tahiti, where, enraptured by the
charm of the landscape and the Polynesian people, he rediscovered
the emotive and magical value of colour and became fascinated by
indigenous mythology. His increasing awareness of spiritual concerns
in every field of art was reflected in his paintings, which
contained new and complex symbols derived from Indian art (for
example Nirvana, which shows the Dutch Buddhist painter Meyer de Haan); Japanese prints (a current fashion in the West); and
Pre-Columbian art, which he knew well through his Peruvian family
tradition. Despite these varied influences, the works never lost
their spontaneity and decorative gaiety. Between 1888 and 1900, the
artist created a series of stylized pictures in which his dependence
on memory, sensation, and the imagination overshadowed the
importance of nature. Looked upon by young artists as their
charismatic master, Gauguin advised, "Don't paint from nature too
much. Art is an abstraction, extract it from nature and dream of the
creation that will result." Gauguin's last great work -Where do we
come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897) - appears to be a
final and painful meditation on the destiny of humanity, summarizing
life's passage from childhood to old age. It pays tribute to
Symbolism, which championed the role of the imagination in
creativity, and allows Gauguin to condense his figurative
experiences by combining earlier motifs and characters in a large
and highly decorative composition. The harmonious but sombre colours
enhance the mysterious, ambiguous imagery, creating a powerfully
Where Do We
Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Gauguin was only episodically a Symbolist painter. Some of his canvases are
more Symbolist than others, and his most ambitious work, his artistic
testament Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? draws its formal inspiration from the great murals of
Puvis de Chavannes.
His painting is not allegorical, as
Puvis de Chavannes' compositions were,
nor is it programmatic;
Gauguin offered different interpretations
to different people. But it is imbued with a mood of sensual melancholy. The
veiled, allusive Symbolism that results has considerable resonance.
Gauguin set himself apart from the more conventional aspects of Symbolism,
but the style he created has no truck with naturalism; it emphasised the
emotional value of colour in ways to which no reproduction can do justice.
Moreover, his ideas about colour were of considerable interest to the next
generation of painters.
The site of this influence was Pont-Aven, in Brittany, where a small colony
of painters had settled. The year was 1888.
(1868-1941), a precociously
gifted painter born into modest circumstances,
came to spend the summer there. He was twenty
years old and a fervent Catholic, a point not
without relevance in the ideological context of
Gauguin was forty. In Paris,
had already met
Gogh. And he had worked out a theory of
painting, which he explained to
called for a more autonomous use of colour,
which was to be applied in flat areas separated
by a black line as in stained-glass windows.
During the summer of 1888
(1864-1927) also arrived in
Pont-Aven. He was twenty-four. His father, director of the Houbigant
perfumery, had marked him down for a commercial career.
enrolling at the Academie Julian, he found himself in the company of
Pierre Bonnard. At Pont-Aven,
Gauguin took him in
hand. Together they went out to paint.
Serusier was noted down by
Denis (1870-1943): "How do you see that tree?"
Gauguin asked as
they stood in a wood called the Bois d'Amour, "Is it really green? Then put
it down in green - the most beautiful green in your palette - and that
shadow is rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible."
Serusier painted the Bois d'Amour on the back of a cigar box. Returning to
Paris, he unwrapped it under the eyes of his friends. "Thus, in paradoxical,
Denis noted, "we were presented for the first
time with the fertile concept of 'a flat surface covered with colours
assembled in a certain order'.
Thus did we learn that every work of art is a
transposition, a caricature, the passionate equivalent of a sensation
received." Realizing the significance of
Serusier's little painting, they
dubbed it The Talisman.
Charles Filiger the
most mystical of the Pont-Aven painters. Alfred Jarry entrusted him with
the illustration of the Symbolist magazine l'Ymagier. He
exhibited at Rose+Croix Salon in 1892.
was one of the most influential artists in the revival of
interest in the art of the colour etching at the end of the 19th century
in France. An associate of the painters of the
Denis etc., his themes were mostly inspired by the quiet
emotion of interior domestic life - frequently depictions of mothers
with their children.
In art, method
of painting evolved by
Charles and others in the 1880s to emphasize
two-dimensional flat patterns, thus breaking with
Impressionist art and theory. The styleshows a
conscious effort to work less directly from nature
and to rely more upon memory.
It was Gauguin who used the word Synthetism, by
which hemeant a style of art in which the form
(colour planes and lines) is synthesized with the
major idea or feeling of the subject. Although he
had exhibited with the Impressionists until 1886, he
did not share their disregard for defined forms or
compositional elements. He felt that their
preoccupation with the study of light effects in
nature was confining, superficial, and neglectful of
thought and ideas. He sought todevelop a new
decorative style in art based on areas of pure
colour (e.g., without shaded areas or modeling), a
few strong lines, and an almost two-dimensional
arrangement of parts. He spent the summers of 1886
and 1888 in Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu, Brittany,
France, with Bernard and other disciples, where he
founded the Synthetist group. An example of this new
decorative style is Gauguin's “Vision After the
Sermon” (1888; National Gallery of Scotland,
Edinburgh). This large work includes peasant
women leaving the church in thelower part of the
canvas; above them is the vision of Jacob wrestling
with the angel, which was the sermon of the day.
Gauguin attempts to combine in one setting two
levels of reality, the everyday world and the dream
world. The lower figures are reduced to areas of
flat patterns, without modeling or perspective. The
large colour areas are intense and without shadows.
The design is so strong that the two realities fuse
into one visual experience.
Bernard and Anquetin used the name Cloisonnism to
describe their painting method, equating the design
effect oflarge areas of pure colour and wide black
outlines to the medieval cloisonné enamel technique.
In addition to his interest in medieval art, Bernard
enjoyed Japanese prints (ukiyo-e) and the art of
primitive cultures. Synthetism was to influence the
Nabis, a group of artists in the next decade, and,
for a while, the work of Vincent van Gogh.
in the decorative arts, an enameling technique
or any product of that technique, which consists of
soldering toa metal surface delicate metal strips
bent to the outline of a design and filling the
resulting cellular spaces, called cloisons (French:
“partitions,” or “compartments”), with vitreous
enamel paste. The object then is fired, ground
smooth, and polished. Sometimes metal wire is used
in place of the usual gold, brass,silver, or copper
Among the earliest examples of cloisonné are six
Mycenaean rings of the 13th century BC. The great
Western period of cloisonné enameling was from the
10th to the 12th century, especially in the
Byzantine Empire. In China cloisonné was widely
produced during the Ming (1368–1644) and Ch'ing
(1644–1911/12) dynasties. In Japan, it was
especially popular during the Tokugawa (1603–1868)
and Meiji (1868–1912) periods.
of young painters who espousedthe style known as Synthetism and
Gauguin's informal tutelage at Pont-Aven,
Brittany, France, in the summer of 1888. The artists included
Bernard Emile, Charles Laval, Maxime Maufra,
Charles, Meyer de Haan, Armand Seguin, and Henri de Chamaillard.
Gauguin and Bernard were the first to reject Impressionist and
pointillist techniques in favour of Synthetist methods. The
paintings executed by these artists in the years between 1886, when
they first met at Pont-Aven, and 1888 show an overall
simplification, a highly expressive use of colour, and an intensely
spiritual approach to their subject matter. In their Breton
landscapes, Gauguin and Bernard employed bright areas of colour
surrounded with heavy, darkoutlines that give the painted surface
the appearance of medieval enamel and stained-glass work. The
content of their paintings often derived from the everyday life of
the Breton people.
Gauguin's disciples, enthusiastically accepting his advice not to
paint exclusively from nature, gradually abandoned the
Neo-Impressionist styles that they had adopted in Paris. In their
revolt against naturalism, the early Synthetist painters emphasized
the decorative potentials of colour and line: a painting was to be
primarily a flat surface upon which colour was laid ornamentally.
The Swallow-Hole in the Bois d'Amour, Pont Aven, or The Talisman
(1888), painted by Paul Sérusier under the direct guidance of
Gauguin, became the talisman of the young disciples. Gauguin had
instructed Sérusier not only to paint the landscape from memory but
to be certain to paint the different-coloured areas as intensely as
possible. Upon the return of the Pont-Aven school to Paris in the
fall of 1888, the members met regularly to discuss new developments
in French art, particularly Symbolism. In 1889 Gauguin arranged an
important exhibition of Impressionist and Synthetist art that
featured his own and others' works.
At one point in the existence of the Pont-Aven school, the idea of
an artistic and communal society had seemed feasible, but, once
Gauguin left for Tahiti, members of the original group abandoned
their hopes for this to materialize. These artists became
increasingly involved in the development of Symbolist art theories
and techniques. Artists such as Sérusier eventually became active in
the Académie Julian and in the group of artists known as the