Saturday, May 7, 2011

Paul Gauguin - Vision after the Sermon

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888
(National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)
Paul Gauguin was a Sunday painter, a stockbroker, a husband and father of five, before he devoted his whole life to art.  Camille Pissarro whom Gauguin had met at the end of the 1870's when painting was just a hobby for him, had become a teacher and mentor, influencing his works towards impressionism.  These earlier works depicting scenes from upper middle class bourgeois life are very different from the works that are associated with Gauguin. After the Paris stock market crash of 1882, Gauguin lost his job, abandoned his family in Denmark and returned to Paris to paint full time.

Brittany in Northern France was known at this time  for its 'primitive' appeal as well as being a cheaper place to live.  Gauguin moved to Pont Aven and alongside Emile Bernard, came up with the artistic style that was coined by the critic Edouard Dujardin 'Cloisonnisme' on the occasion of the Salon des Independants in March 1888.  Cloisonnism was a new mode of painting where dark colors and lines outlined unbroken areas of flat colors, the idea was very similar to enameling where lead outlines separated areas of bright colors.  Because of the lack of modeling and the areas of unbroken color, these images tend to look flatter. They were influenced by sources inside as well as outside of France, namely Cloisonné, Japanese prints and medieval stained glass windows.  

Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) is the best known work among several Gauguin  painted of Breton themes that exemplified the movement away from illusionist naturalism towards abstraction.  In order to distinguish it from "Cloisonnisme", Gauguin coined his work "Synthetism" which was aimed at combining or synthesizing the real appearance of the subject, the poetry the artist sees in it and the artist's personal response to it.  Even though subject matter was still important to him, lines, colors and shapes took precedence over it.  

This work was supposed to be a visionary painting of a group of Breton peasant women who are so moved after the impassioned sermon they had just heard, that they are experiencing a vision of the biblical story of redemption.  Even without the title, it is easy to decipher the religious context because of the praying women and the priest plus Jacob and the Angel in the upper part of the painting. 

Gauguin radically split his picture plane by a diagonal tree trunk, separating the earthly realm from the heavenly one.  The background is an unnaturalistic red, the color of the earth in Gauguin's imagination, the Breton women who exist in the natural world are in the subdued black, white and dark blues while Jacob and the Angel of the heavenly realm are represented in bright yellow, blue and green reinforcing this separation also.   

In reality, the conception of Brittany as somehow primitive, severe and eminently folkloric has been revealed as itself a mythic representation.  According to an essay written by Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock in 1980, "Les Donnees Bretonnantes", Pont Aven in the 1890's were in fact an international artists' colony, and a popular site for tourism, as well as home to a relatively prosperous economy based on fishing, agriculture, kelp harvesting and iodine manufacturing. 1  

So the whole image Gauguin is representing is based on artifice; the clothing worn by pious Breton women in the painting actually was for attracting tourists. And according to Gauguin's distinctive style of Symbolism, the ground could be red, the perspective could be off and the protagonists the image of his preconceived notions.

"The painter ought not to rest until he has given birth to the child of his imagination... begotten by the union of his mind with reality."
                                                                       -  Paul Gauguin 

1  Abagail Solomon-Godeau, "Going Native - Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism" p.316

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