Pont-Aven

From 1886 to 1890 Pont-Aven, in Brittany, was the favourite resort of a group of artists, who in time came to be known as the Pont-Aven School.

Gauguin went there in 1886, partly, as he said, for reasons of economy, but also because he hoped to find "in this unspoilt land of old-world customs" an atmosphere quite different from that of "our atrociously civilized communities." Here he met his old friend Schuffenecker; also Emile Bernard, to whom he gave a rather cool reception. Gauguin now seemed to be abandoning the analysis of colour, turning his back on Impressionism, and putting Pissarro, his erstwhile teacher, out of mind. A word that often cropped up in his conversation was "Synthesis." His visit was brief on this occasion; he soon returned to Paris. During his second stay in Pont-Aven, in 1888, his contacts with other artists were on a wider scale. Several new -isms now came to the fore; alongside Symbolism there arose Synthesism and Cloisonnism. On this occasion the original trio -- Gauguin, Schuffenecker and Bernard -- was joined later in the year by Henri Moret, the Dutchman Verkade and Sérusier. By Synthesism was meant "a concise simplification" of the forms expressing the Idea.

But it was Cloisonnism that led to the most heated discussions. Its technique was simple enough -- that of binding forms in clean-cut contour-lines. Emile Bernard claimed paternity of the method, but there is no denying that this technique was not, strictly speaking, original; it had precedents in Japanese prints, in stained-glass windows, and of course in cloisonné enamel-work (in which the 'cloisons' are left visible); not to mention the popular picture-sheets produced at Epinal from the eighteenth century on. This technique found favour with the Pont-Aven group, and Sérusier codified it. It was now that Gauguin painted his Yellow Christ and his magnificent Jacob wrestling with the Angel. Next year, finding Pont-Aven overcrowded the group migrated to the near-by village of Le Pouldu, making Marie Henry's inn their headquarters. Here, Gauguin made the acquaintance of the Dutch painter Meyer de Haan. The inn parlour was decorated by Gauguin, Henri Moret, Maufra, Meyer de Haan and Sérusier.

There can be no doubt as to the coherency of the theories of the Pont-Aven group. One of these was that the artist should "dare everything," as Gauguin put it. Another, that the traditional views on art borrowed from Greece and Italy should be rejected, and a return made to archaic and hieratic forms, Assyrian or Breton as the case might be. Also that the artist should suggest impressions, conveying his "suggestion" by his arrangement of colours, light and shade, and thus produce the effect of music on the pictorial plane; that outlines should be clean-cut, as in Japanese prints and stained-glass windows (as described above); that flat colour rimmed by contour-lines should suggest a new kind of depth, due to the relative intensity of tones. And all these devices were to be put to the service of that one thing most desirable: the Symbol.

Gauguin and Van Gogh

When Gauguin and Van Gogh met in Paris in the autumn of 1886 the two men were greatly struck with each other. In the course of February 1888 Van Gogh left rather hastily for Arles, while Gauguin went to Pont-Aven or the summer. It was now that he painted this wonderful "Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel"in his new technique (to which he gave the names of Cloisonnism and Synthesism). He asked Van Gogh to come to Brittany, while Van Gogh urged him to move to Arles and to join him in founding a "Studio of the South." The little portraits adorning this correspondence are touching evidence of their liking for each other at this time.

Finally Gauguin, always ready for new adventures, packed up and came to Arles on October 20. Somehow they succeeded in living together for two months, though their differences of temperament showed from the start, and the tension between them rose rapidly. On Christmas Day Van Gogh in a fit of madness cut off his own ear; and Gauguin beat a hurried retreat to Paris. But even so there had been time enough for Van Gogh, vastly impressed by Gauguin's intellectual attainments, to modify his style. He painted L'Arlésienne after a drawing by Gauguin, and under his influence began the sequence of five pictures known as La Berceuse which, while showing traces of the admiration both men had for Japanese prints, have the same decorative rhythm and symbolic harmony as The Vision.

The Importance of Gauguin and Van Gogh

Woodcuts and Watercolors

In the scattered notes written for his daughter Aline, Gauguin said, "You will always find nourishment in the primitive arts, in the civilized arts I doubt that you will." This belief, which runs as a theme through the artist's thinking, is nowhere more evident than in his woodcuts. Under the inspiration of the traditional French folk woodcut (the images d'Epinal), and the Japanese woodcut (really a folk art itself), Gauguin in effect reversed the whole nineteenth-century tradition of wood-block prints to produce his own characteristically bold and broad effects. While the traditionally expert carver used lines, set as closely together as his medium would allow, to rival as best he could the modeling of the painter, Gauguin, always opposed to modeling, employed (as indeed he did in his painting) the large flat surface. His characteristic woodcut effects are of broad, contrasting areas which strike the eye, not by the expert cleanness of the cutting, but by the bold contrast of their essential design. Where these areas needed to be lightened for the double purpose of decorative pattern and intensification of the basic bold design, Gauguin scratched lines so fine and closely set that they seem to be etched into the surface rather than cut out in relief.

Consonant with the broadness of his method, Gauguin's characteristic color effect is dark, even black. (He is here very different from the Japanese print.) Black is his basic color, relieved usually by one, sometimes by two others -- a yellow, a deep red, a purple -- through which figures and design seem to emerge from the depths of shadow. This is a world of mystery, of half-perceived forms and gestures and expressions, a world whose binding element is a brooding atmosphere suggesting splendor and enigma.

The most important of Gauguin's woodcuts were done early in his career as an artist, in Brittany, after his first return from Tahiti. The best, and the rarest, of them were printed (probably by hand, without a press) by the artist himself. Later impressions (first by Louis Roy, and then after his death by Gauguin's son Pola) lose much of that combination of deliberate technical coarseness and intuitive sensitivity that is so typical of Gauguin. "It is just because [these] woodcuts return to the primitive period of woodcutting that [they are] interesting," wrote Gauguin to De Monfreid from Tahiti. With them, Gauguin produced a revolution in the graphic arts, and fathered their revival (particularly among the Expressionists) in the first years of this century.

Gauguin's watercolors are scattered throughout his life. Some were done in Brittany as finished works, a few (like the Yellow Christ) were sketches for works in oil, but these are rare, for Gauguin's inspiration functioned as he worked. Among the most interesting are those he did to illustrate his own writings: those he drew in his letters and those he inserted into his personal revision of the book he had written earlier with Charles Morice, Noa Noa.