Paul Gauguin: Who opened the Door to the Development of 20th-Century Art

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Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin (born June 7, 1848, Paris, France—died May 8, 1903, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia) was a French painter, printmaker, and sculptor who sought to achieve a “primitive” expression of spiritual and emotional states in his work. The artist, whose work has been categorized as Post-Impressionist, Synthetist, and Symbolist, is particularly well known for his creative relationship with Vincent van Gogh as well as for his self-imposed exile in Tahiti, French Polynesia. His artistic experiments influenced many avant-garde developments in the early 20th century.

The Market Gardens of Vaugirard
The Market Gardens of Vaugirard

Beginnings

Gauguin’s father was a journalist from Orléans, and his mother was of French and Peruvian descent. After Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1848, Gauguin’s father took the family to Peru, where he planned to establish a newspaper, but he died en route, and Gauguin’s mother stayed with her children on the Lima estate of her uncle for four years before taking the family back to France. At age 17 Gauguin enlisted in the merchant marine, and for six years he sailed around the world. His mother died in 1867, leaving legal guardianship of the family with the businessman Gustave Arosa, who, upon Gauguin’s release from the merchant marine, secured a position for him as a stockbroker and introduced him to the Danish woman Mette Sophie Gad, whom Gauguin married in 1873. Gauguin’s artistic leanings were first aroused by Arosa, who had a collection that included the work of Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-François Millet, and by a fellow stockbroker, Émile Schuffenecker, with whom he started painting. Gauguin soon began to receive artistic instruction and to frequent a studio where he could draw from a model. In 1876 his Landscape at Viroflay was accepted for the official annual exhibition in France, the Salon.

 

He developed a taste for the contemporary avant-garde movement of Impressionism, and between 1876 and 1881 he assembled a personal collection of paintings by such figures as Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Johan Barthold Jongkind.Gauguin met Pissarro about 1874 and began to study under the supportive older artist, at first struggling to master the techniques of painting and drawing.

 

In 1880 he was included in the fifth Impressionist exhibition, an invitation that was repeated in 1881 and 1882. He spent holidays painting with Pissarro and Cézanne and began to make visible progress. During this period he also entered a social circle of avant-garde artists that included Manet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Gauguin lost his job when the French stock market crashed in 1882, an occurrence he saw as a positive development, because it would allow him to “paint every day.” In an attempt to support his family, he unsuccessfully sought employment with art dealers, while continuing to travel to the countryside to paint with Pissarro. In 1884 he moved his family to Rouen, France, and took odd jobs, but by the end of the year, the family moved to Denmark, seeking the support of Mette’s family. Without employment, Gauguin was free to pursue his art, but he faced the disapproval of his wife’s family; in mid-1885 he returned with his eldest son to Paris.

The vision of the sermon
The vision of the sermon

Gauguin participated in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, showing 19 paintings and a carved wood relief. His own works won little attention, however, being overshadowed by Georges Seurat’s enormous A Sunday on La Grand Jatte—1884 (1884–86). Frustrated and destitute, Gauguin began to make ceramic vessels for sale, and that summer he made a trip to Pont-Aven in the Brittany region of France, seeking a simpler and more frugal life. After a harsh winter there, Gauguin sailed to the French Caribbean island of Martinique with the painter Charles Laval in April 1887, intending to “live like a savage.” His works painted on Martinique, such as Tropical Vegetation (1887) and By the Sea (1887), reveal his increasing departure from Impressionist technique during this period, as he was now working with blocks of color in large, unmodulated planes. Upon his return to France late in 1887, Gauguin affected an exotic identity, pointing to his Peruvian ancestry as an element of “primitivism” in his own nature and artistic vision.

 

Old Women of Arles (Mistral)
Old Women of Arles (Mistral)

Early maturity

In the summer of 1888 Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven, searching for what he called “a reasoned and frank return to the beginning, that is to say, to primitive art.” He was joined there by young painters, including Émile Bernard and Paul Sérusier, who also were seeking a more direct expression in their painting. Gauguin achieved a step towards this ideal in the seminal Vision of the Sermon (1888), a painting in which he used broad planes of color, clear outlines, and simplified forms. Gauguin coined the term “Synthetism” to describe his style during this period, referring to the synthesis of his paintings’ formal elements with the idea or emotion they conveyed.

Gauguin acted as a mentor to many of the artists who assembled in Pont-Aven, urging them to rely more upon feeling than upon the direct observation associated with Impressionism. Indeed, he advised: “Don’t copy too much after nature. Art is an abstraction: extract from nature while dreaming before it and concentrate more on creating than on the final result.” Gauguin and the artists around him, who became known as the Pont-Aven school, began to be decorative in the overall compositions and harmonies of their paintings. Gauguin no longer used line and color to replicate an actual scene, as he had as an Impressionist, but rather explored the capacity of those pictorial means to induce a particular feeling in the viewer.

For the next several years, Gauguin alternated between living in Paris and Brittany. In Paris he became acquainted with the avant-garde literary circles of Symbolist poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. These poets, who advocated abandoning traditional forms in order to embody inner emotional and spiritual life, saw their equivalent in the visual arts in the work of Gauguin. In a famous essay in the Mercure de France in 1891, the critic Albert Aurier declared Gauguin to be the leader of a group of Symbolist artists, and he defined his work as “ideational, symbolic, synthetic, subjective, and decorative.”

Mysteries of Paradise
Mysteries of Paradise

Legacy of Paul Gauguin

 

Gauguin’s influence was immense and varied. His legacy rests partly in his dramatic decision to reject the materialism of contemporary culture in favour of a more spiritual, unfettered lifestyle. It also rests in his tireless experimentation. Scholars have long identified him with a range of stylistic movements, and the challenge of defining his oeuvre, particularly the late work, attests to the uniqueness of his vision. Along with the work of his great contemporaries Cézanne and van Gogh, Gauguin’s innovations inspired a whole generation of artists. In 1889–90 many of the young followers who had gathered around him at Pont-Aven utilized Gauguin’s ideas to form the Nabis group. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch owed much to Gauguin’s use of line, and the painters of the Fauve group—Henri Matisse in particular—profited from his use of colour in their own daring compositions. In Germany, too, Gauguin’s influence was strong in the work of German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Gauguin’s use of Oceanic iconography and his stylistic simplifications greatly affected the young Pablo Picasso, inspiring his own appreciation of African art and hence the evolution of Cubism. In this way, through both his stylistic advances and his rejection of empirical representation in favour of conceptual representation, Gauguin helped open the door to the development of 20th-century art.

Credit: Britannica.com

All Images: Google

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