Gauguin is linchpin in Post-Impressionist era

Michael Raffety

Oct. 7, 2010

Calling the painters who came after Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro Post-Impressionists leaves one with the notion that there is some kind of reaction, a break with the style of he Impressionists. In reality the artists we assign to the category of Post-Impressionism were continuing the work of the Impressionists.

As the president of the Muse D’Orsay, Guy Cogeval, wrote (translated into English) in his introduction to the show catalog for the de Young Museum, ‘If we examine Post-Impressionism as a continuation of and engagement with Impressionism, instead of a simple rejection of it, the art we encounter becomes more complex and even more interesting.”

Cogeval also noted, “In fact, no artist during the fin-de-sicle period could remain unaware of the ethical force of Impressionism, which became one of the voices that niggled at the conscience of the bourgeoisie, slowly undermining the shaky foundations of the academic and Realist idols of the Third Republic. The Post-Impressionists intensified this attitude of provocation.”

The show is “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond, Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musee D’Orsay.” It opened Sept. 25 and runs through Jan. 18, 2011. Adult tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Prices decline for seniors, student and youths.

Vincent Van Gogh, with his short brush strokes that show the influence of the Pointillism of its most famous practitioner Georges Seurat, is somewhat in a category by himself. Stephane Guegan, in his translated show catalog chapter on Van Gogh, describes his technique: “The self-portraits of 1887 ” with their extreme pointillist technique and strident palette — summarize the painter’s first months spent in France, during which the lessons of the Louvre were multiplied tenfold by the profound impact of Seurat, the bedazzling discovery of Japanese woodcut prints, and the influence of the cosmopolitan circle he met at the atelier of the academic painter Fernand Cormon on the boulevard de Clichy.”

There are seven Van Goghs in the exhibition at the De Young. I have been a fan of his work since my mother took me to a Van Gogh exhibit in Portland, Ore., in 1955. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena also has a good collection of Van Goghs. The ultimate collection, I’m told is in Amsterdam. The professor who was my advisor and mentor for my Master’s degree in Art delighted in taking a tour through France where artists could place their easels or cameras in the exact spot where Van Gogh had placed his easel. My wife and I were shocked to learn our daughter doesn’t like Van Gogh.

But then I never like Gauguin. This exhibit at the de Young and reading the catalog changed my mind about Paul Gauguin. Mostly his Tahitian paintings stuck in my mind and they seemed somewhat depressing. But as noted by Stephane Guegan, Gauguin was “almost dismissed” from the influential 1946 book History of Impressionism by John Rewald. The book affected Gauguin’s place in art history for 30 years. “More space was devoted in that book to Cezanne and Edouard Manet than to Gauguin, even though Gauguin had exhibited five times with the Impressionist group — as many times as Monet, and more often than Pierre Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley,” Guegan wrote.

What I found fascinating about Gauguin was his use of color. Scenes and figures were rendered with bright colors that were more a reflection of the artist than of the actual colors of the scene. It’s a style of color and color intensity that I find attractive. Examining the still lifes of Gauguin and Paul Cezanne I noticed how they rendered fruit not with the careful shading that is often part of an elementary drawing class, but with color. Pears will have blotches of red and blue in a Cezanne still life. Gauguin will paint his apples with green, red, blue, yellow, ochre and pink. Gauguin’s Still Life with Fan and Cezanne’s Kitchen Table (Still Life with Basket) have inspired me to try some still lifes with my water color and be free and intense with the colors.

Pissarro “made the deepest impression on Gauguin, at least until 1886,” wrote Guegan. Following the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886 Gauguin returned to Brittany. By then “His work underwent a formal and theoretical reorientation, accompanied by an increased freedom in the use of nonmimetic color,” Guegan wrote. In other words, the color choices came from within and less from the actual scene.

Another revelation for me is Gauguin’s leadership role and the influence he had among a group of artists that painted in Brittany. The artists, in turn, influenced Gauguin. Referred by Guegan as the Pont-Aven School, the artists Emile Bernard, Charles Laval and Paul Serusier.

“I’m the one who calls the shots in Pont-Aven. All artists fear me and love me; not one of them resists my conclusions…. I am respected as the best painter in Pont-Aven,” Gauguin wrote, though Guegan observes this is likely braggadocio. Van Gogh did maintain a continuous correspondence with Gauguin and the Pont-Aven group and had some influence from afar in Arles.

The influence of this group from Pont-Aven is likened by Guegan to the School of Fontainebleau in the 16th century. The paintings of Paul Serusier probably had an equal influence on Gauguin. Serusier, who died in 1927, influenced the next generation of Parisian painters as much as Cezanne, whose still life Pablo Picasso copied into one of his signature three-dimensional deconstructions. Serusier painted a startlingly abstract landscape after following the advice of Gauguin: ‘How do you see those trees? If they are yellow, then make them yellow; and that bluish shadow, paint it aquamarine; and those red leaves? Use vermilion? the result of Gauguin’s advice was Serusier’s Talisman, the Aven at the Bois d’Amour, “shapeless by virtue of being synthetically formulated.”

The group that was influenced by Serusier was formed in 1889 and called themselves Nabis — from a Hebrew and Aramaic word nebiim, meaning prophet. Among those was Maurice Denis, who wrote, “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote, or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Guegan wrote that “Denis was calling, forcefully for a reversal. A painting’s irreducible elements — color, flatness, line– were to express a ‘mood’ of the artist and not the subject or the story being told.”

And that’s how American abstract expressionist painters moved the center of the art world from Paris to New York City after World War II. They took the theories of Denis, the examples of the Nabis and Picasso and others and created a style of art that still casts a shadow on what is now academic art promulgated in college art programs.

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