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On view through Sunday, September 15, Paul Gauguin: The Art of Invention features a display that showcases the artist’s fascination with experimentation.

Paul Gauguin‘s second stay in Brittany in 1888 yielded paintings such as Landscape from Pont-Aven and Landscape from Brittany with Breton Women, which show his increasingly abstract painting style. However, his most inventive period came during a brief but intense 10-week span in Brittany in 1888 working alongside the artist Émile Bernard, a precocious young painter 20 years Gauguin’s junior. While working together in the village of Pont-Aven, they became close friends and collaborators, exchanging ideas about aesthetic principles that dramatically shaped their own works and the direction of Modern art leading into the 20th century.

In 1887, while Gauguin was breaking away from Impressionism and exploring bright colors and ornamental patterns, Bernard was experimenting with a new style that emphasized suggestive color rendered in flat planes surrounded by heavy, dark outlines.[i] Bernard also preached the ideas of extreme simplicity of the image as well as creating something based on the artist’s imagination rather than depicting reality.[ii] As Gauguin and Bernard discussed this new aesthetic—which came to be known as Synthetism—it led them to greater visual experimentation.[iii]

Emile Bernard, French, 1868-1941; The Pardon (Breton Women on a Meadow), 1888; oil on canvas; 28 3/4 x 36 3/16 inches; Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France RF-MO-P-2019-1, Photo: Patrice Schmidt; © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

First, Bernard painted a highly abstracted view of Breton men, women, and children in a vivid green field. This painting, The Pardon (Breton Women in the Meadow), was remarkable for its flat, vibrant color, bold lines, and simplified imagery. The rich yellow-green background was complemented by punctuations of red, such as the woman’s umbrella in the upper left and the young girl’s apron near the center.

Paul Gauguin, French, 1848–1903; Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888; oil on canvas; 28 7/16 x 35 7/8 inches; National Galleries of Scotland

By Bernard’s account, his Breton Women inspired Gauguin, who adopted the former’s style for the major painting Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel). It represents a hallucinatory image, before a group of pious Breton women, of Jacob wrestling an angel against a fiery red background. Gauguin’s dramatic painting went beyond Bernard’s in terms of symbolic content. The synthesis of real and unreal achieved in Vision would continue to inform Gauguin’s works throughout his career.[iv]

Gauguin and Bernard continued to develop their Synthetist style, working on various projects, including Earthly Paradise, a wooden cabinet they carved together. They organized the first exhibition of Synthetist artists, which was held at the Café Volpini in 1889 during the Paris World’s Fair.[v] However, tensions arose between the two men, and they ultimately had a falling out in 1891. The breaking point came when an article identified Gauguin as the originator of the Synthetist movement, to Bernard’s great frustration.[vi] Nonetheless, their work together for that brief period in Pont-Aven helped shape the development of Avant-Garde art.

Paul Gauguin: The Art of Invention is on view in the Museum’s East Building through September 15, 2019.

  • [i] Wladislawa Jaworska, Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School, trans. Patrick Evans (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Arts Society, 1972), 14–18. This style of painting was known as Cloisonnism, related to the decorative styles of enamel (cloisonné) and stained glass. Bernard was not the originator of this style; the theories behind it were laid out by Édouard Dujardin, and Bernard’s friend Louis Anquetin created the first Cloisonnist paintings. See also Henri Dorra, “Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin,” Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th series, vol. 45 (April 1955), 229–232.
    [ii] Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bernard: Friction of Ideas (Copenhagen: Ordrupgaard, 2014), 111.
    [iii] At the same time, they were both corresponding with Vincent van Gogh in Arles, whose art also inspired them and who had encouraged them to meet in Pont-Aven. See Fonsmark, 107.
    [iv] Jaworska, 20–25; See also Daniel Wildenstein, Gauguin: A Savage in the Making; Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings (1873–1888) (Paris: Wildenstein Institute, 2002), 455–477.
    [v] For a thorough study on the Volpini exhibition, see Heather Lemonedes, Belinda Thomson, and Agnieszka Juszczak, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2009).
    [vi] Albert Aurier, “Le symbolisme en peinture: Paul Gauguin,” Mercure de France 2 (March 1891), 159–164. Bernard went unmentioned in the article, a fact that particularly irritated him, since he had encouraged Aurier to write about Gauguin in the first place. See Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski, “Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin: The Avant-Garde and Tradition,” in Stevens, 48.

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