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Picasso in the 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (left), one of the most significant paintings in the development of modern art, is influenced not only by the Primitivism of Gauguin's ceramic statue Oviri (a civilized savage is what Gauguin called himself) but also perhaps directly references the face of the figure on the left of Gauguin's 1892 Spirit of the Dead Watching (right), which draws from Egyptian art, in the face of the female figure on the extreme left of Demoiselles.

     


Paul Gauguin, Oviri, 1894-95, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

 

Gauguin sails to D.C...

 

...on a tramp steamer!

 

 

Art is either plagiarism or revolution.
Paul Gauguin

 

Recently opened in D.C. at the National Gallery of Art: Gauguin: Maker of Myth – which began it's journey at the Tate in London and stops here through June 5, 2011.

 

The myth of the man larger than any of the other myths in the public imagination: Paul Gauguin (1848 -1903) exulted in the exotic strain of the Peruvian in his ancestry (he would call himself Inca at times, later); the early years of his childhood spent in Lima, then in France.  A sailor in the merchant navy and later a stockbroker.  The bourgeois years in Paris where he was both a buyer of art (his guardian was the art collector Gustave Arosa), a family man, and a Sunday painter.  An early tepid dabbling with Impressionism. A stock market crash, the quitting of the day job.  The late bloomer.  A move to Copenhagen and then the leaving of wife and family to give himself up completely to painting (“I deeply loathe Denmark...” he was to write).  Then the removal to Brittany (side-trips to Panama and Martinique); weeks spent with Van Gogh in the Yellow House in Arles (Van Gogh: "People do not understand him [Gauguin] yet...").  The finding of his own voice (color was "the language of the listening eye") with Cloisonnism.  Then to the South Seas and Tahiti (some longing for his Peruvian childhood in this search for some other paradise) and a legacy (a Synthetism that combined  the use of intense flat color, a purity of line and form, symbols from a personal mythology that fed on diverse sources and was fueled by the idea of the primitive in man) that greatly influenced Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Fauvism, Cubism, modern art itself. 

 

And if he influenced so many, he had in turn borrowed and wore his influences openly, overtly: Egyptian art; the Renaissance works of Giotto, Raphael; the paintings in his guardian Arosa’s collection; Ingres, Corot, Courbet, and Delacroix; Cezanne; Japanese art.  Myths and fables, the Bible, French poetry, Montaigne and Rousseau, the legends of the South Seas.

 

It begins before the South Seas, in Brittany.  In Pont-Aven.  Influenced by Japanese and medieval art (stained glass windows) and the work of Emile Bernard, Gauguin began to work in a style called Cloisonnism (from cloisonné enamel work): areas of flat color, these shapes then separated by contour lines in dark blue or black that make the painting take on some of the qualities of abstract pattern.  And as always, Gauguin's distant removed gaze.

 

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon; Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1888. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Scotland

 

The important 1888 Vision after  the Sermon, an early Cloisonnist work.  Breton women, their headdresses now as decorative as flowers, everything outlined, the level jeweled colors.  The women see a vision of the angel fighting with Jacob (an old standard in art, this Biblical theme, but never done quite this way before).  The tree that is reminiscent of Japanese art in the way it gracefully bends and separates the lovely field of red, also the Japanese influence in the use of pictorial space.  Gauguin gives us a vision of a vision....

 

Paul Gauguin, Haystacks in Brittany, 1890. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

Haystacks in Brittany -- a lovely painting which makes one realize that his use of color was not influenced by the brilliant foliage of the tropics. (“It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object; beware of this stumbling block.”)  Gauguin makes the quilted French countryside as colorful as his later Tahitian Landscape (right) or La Orana Maria (below), and even the cows become aestheticized abstract pattern here....

 


Paul Gauguin, La Orana Maria, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art

(A variation on the Annunciation theme, the angel with blue wings hidden in the foliage to left)

 

And so, revisiting Gauguin's declamation that 'Art is either plagiarism or revolution,' it is interesting to note that both Cezanne and Emile Bernard thought that Gauguin had plagiarized from them (Cezanne: "Oh! That Gauguin! I had one little sensation [his use of short parallel brushstrokes] and he took it from me!  He brought it along to Brittany, to Martinique, to Tahiti, yes, on all the tramp steamers!  That Gauguin!")  But the history of art is an endless story of appropriation...of references and allusions, of the sophisticated nod which may at times be a secret handshake recognizable only to the cognoscenti, at others a blatant shout-out....

 

 

Visit: Gauguin: Maker of Myth

 

See: The Video, narrated by Willem Dafoe

 

Read: Gaugin: Maker of Myth, the accompanying catalogue

 

See: The Tate video: Gauguin in his own words

 

Tags: art  books  color  travel  france  museums  pattern

 

 

 
Paul Gauguin in 1891

 

 

 

color

is

''the language of

 the listening eye"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms, 1899. The Metropolitan Museum

 

The backdrop of foliage is almost a patterned fabric -- nature never to be imitated but transformed. 

 

 

Vahine no te vi (Woman with a Mango), 1892. Baltimore Museum of Art

 

 

 


Tahitian Landscape, 1893.  The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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