Impressionism Rejected

As in the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears the objects in this still life by Gauguin come by threes -- three puppies, three blue goblets, three apples -- and the innocent sentiment of the subject is matched by the simplicity of the style. Curiously, Gauguin may have owed something of both sentiment and style to Kate Greenaway, the English illustrator of children's books which he admired for their flat-patterned, nursery primitivism.

Gauguin himself was however far from innocent, either as a man or as an artist. For a dozen years he had been painting as a junior colleague of the impressionists and then, like Cézanne and Renoir, had grown dissatisfied. He tried briefly to follow Cézanne's profound effort "to make of impressionism something solid and enduring" -- and won Cézanne's contempt. He flirted very briefly with Seurat's elaborate Neo-Impressionist discipline. In Brittany, perhaps with the help of Emile Bernard, he found his own style, based upon the definite outlines, flattened perspective and often "unnatural" color which he discovered variously in Egyptian and medieval painting, Japanese prints, Breton peasant art and last (and perhaps least) Miss Greenaway's picture books.

That was about 1888, the year he painted the Three Puppies and the year he declared that "painting is an abstraction," a remark which anticipated by two years the often quoted injunction of his follower, Maurice Denis: "Remember that a painting -- before being a war horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote or other -- is essentially a plane surface covered by colors arranged in a certain order."

With his escape to Tahiti, Gauguin considered his break with convention complete. The essential change in his art, however, was in subject matter rather than style.

The woodcut offered Gauguin a medium which, by its very directness, was particularly suited to the primitive attitude he wished to assume. In Women at the River light areas such as the rocks and banks of either shore were gouged out with a knife. The flowing river and the dark seated figure, areas where the surface of the block was less touched, offer a rhythmic contrast to the boldness of his carving and the roughness of the wood. Gauguin's exploitation of the very texture of the wood itself established a tradition characteristic of the woodcut today.

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