Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Yellow Christ (1889)

Gauguin prolonged his stay with the Schuffeneckers for several months during which he exhibited with a group of twenty artists known as “Les Vingt”. However, his paintings did not win wider critical acclaim. Although he could easily tolerate jibes from malicious journalists, he was deeply hurt by criticism from Camille Pissarro whose pointillist style had influenced his own artistic development.

Pisarro believed that art should be at the vanguard of civilisation, propagating knowledge and rational thought. He considered that Gauguin’s primitivism was backward, mystical and superstitious. Worse of all he accused Gauguin of being a fake without any true artistic vocation. To him Gauguin was merely attempting to carve out a profitable niche by recycling tired religious themes in a sensationalist manner.

Pissarro was particularly critical of Yellow Christ” (1889) in which Gauguin creates a vision of his own personal crucifixion witnessed by the Breton peasant women who kneel at his feet. The harsh glare of the unnaturally yellow tones creates a nightmarish atmosphere, but Gauguin appears totally relaxed as he smugly hangs on the cross.

Gauguin’s huge ego is apparent in “Yellow Christ”. He not only compares himself to Christ but also implies that he too deserves to be worshiped. He compares his status as an artist with the creative force of a deity and asserts that he is being maliciously persecuted by lesser beings. Such bold statements were an open invitation to ridicule.

In “Yellow Christ” Gauguin, regarded by many as a crafty fake, claims the status of a misunderstood genius.

Image source: The Yorck Project

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Schuffenecker Family (1889)

Gauguin left Arles immediately after Van Gogh had mutilated himself. He didn’t feel under any further obligation towards his “friend”. Gauguin later exaggerated Van Gogh’s propensity to violence in an attempt to excuse his own cold-heartedness. He also claimed that Van Gogh had made an implicit death threat by referring to a newspaper story about a murder.

After leaving Arles, Gauguin imposed himself on the Schuffenecker family, arriving at their Paris home in time for Christmas 1888. Schuffenecker, also a talented painter, had been a stockbroker acquaintance of Gauguin prior to the crash of 1882.

Gauguin condescendingly referred to Schuffenecker as “le bon Schuff”. However, Schuffenecker was a decent man. He had continued to maintain his wife and family by earning a reasonable living as a drawing master. Gauguin, who had abandoned his own family, despised Schuffenecker and developed a close relationship with his wife.

In “Schuffenecker Family (1889)” Gauguin places Madame Schuffenecker in the foreground with her children by her side. Schuffenecker stands isolated in the background, next to an easel, wringing his hands in a timid pose.

Gauguin uses harshly contrasting colours, heavily outlining the dominant figure of Madame Schuffenecker, which looms so large in the foreground that it has to be cropped in order to fit the frame. By contrast, Schuffenecker, like Van Gogh in “Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers”, is drawn at an awkward angle and made to look even smaller by the deliberately inaccurate perspective.

Instead of the horizontal strips of colour which he used for the background of "Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers", Gauguin inserts a wall on which two pictures hang: a Japanese print and a still life with a rat’s tail next to a bowl of fruit. By doing so he markedly fails to make any reference to Schuffenecker’s own artistic accomplishments, a compliment which he paid to Van Gogh. He also inserts an open window whose vertical bars accentuate Madame Schuffenecker’s stiff pose. Everything outside is cloudy save where an unnatural break in the weather reveals a sunny neighbour's house.

Gauguin may have been attracted to Madame Schuffenecker, but it is unlikely that he would have considered any serious committment. Indeed, the most striking aspect of Gauguin's character is his total dedication to his art.

Image Source: the Yorck Project

Monday, February 26, 2007

Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (1888)

Gauguin admired Van Gogh’s enthusiasm but disliked his impetuous emotion. Gauguin was a shrewd, self-controlled man who liked to keep his distance. He disliked unpredictable outbursts and mental instability. Despite having made little money from his paintings, Gauguin had enormous self-belief and was certain that he would achieve material success.

Gauguin, who carefully planned his pictures, was horrified at how Van Gogh worked himself into a frenzy, throwing paint onto his canvass in thick globules, smearing and mixing it until he had achieved the effect he wanted. Gauguin disliked messy workmanship as much as he despised mental weakness. Although he recognised Van Gogh's talent, he thought of him as an introverted romantic preoccupied by his own indulgent soul-searching.

In “Van Gogh painting Sunflowers (1888)”, Gauguin barely defines his subject’s features. Instead he shows Van Gogh slumped in his chair, feverishly painting, his arm at an awkward angle to the canvass. The strangeness of the pose indicates Van Gogh's instability and his apparently undisciplined approach to his work.

Gauguin paints Van Gogh's sunflowers in the same dull tones as he uses to represent the artist, setting off the sharp angles created by the painter’s body and easel with several flat horizontal lines of harshly contrasting colours. Van Gogh's awkwardness is accentuated by this ugly meaningless background.

Gauguin expresses his disdain for Van Gogh in this picture. He later described his time in Arles as a bad experience. A short time after Gauguin finished this picture, Van Gogh threatened him with a razor before cutting off part of his own ear.

Image source: The Yorck Project

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Night Cafe at Arles (1888)

In the autumn of 1888 Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch art dealer, invited Gauguin to stay with his brother Vincent in Arles, a small town in the south of France.

Gauguin was suspicious of the invitation. Theo was his Paris agent. Surely this was just a means of obtaining exclusive rights over his own paintings? Gauguin was on a high after winning the respect and admiration of his fellow artists at Ponte-Aven. He was sure that his paintings would now sell. However, material success continued to elude him and he had no other choice but to accept Theo's offer of support.

Gauguin expected to dominate Van Gogh, but the two artists had already established their own distinct styles. Van Gogh's work expressed his own uninhibited emotion. He revealed everything about himself on canvass, particularly the negative aspects of his own character.

By contrast, Gauguin's search for reality did not involve any personal truths. His art attempted to provide an insight into other people's characters through symbolic representation.

In "Night Cafe at Arles", Gauguin paints a subject already attempted by Van Gogh. However, whereas Van Gogh's picture mirrors his own desperate isolation by concentrating on lonely drinkers with apparently nowhere else to go, Gauguin is disdainful of such painful soul-searching and approaches the subject with optimism.

The cafe owner, Madame Ginoux, prosperous and matronly, dominates the foreground while the late night drinkers, idling their time away, are relegated to the background. Once again Gauguin skillfully divides his canvass between two contrasting scenes, employing harshly defined blocks of colour in order to create a symbolic picture in preference to a realistic image.

Image source: The Yorck Collection

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888)

On his return from Martinique, Gauguin rejoined the artist's colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany. He once again became its leading figure, proclaiming that a picture should reflect a deeper reality than the mere representation of its subject-matter. He believed that existence depended on some hidden equilibrium which art should reflect by depicting identifiable objects within the context of a schematic and thought-provoking pattern.

He studied Celtic art and was fascinated by ancient depictions of local Breton gods as abstract ornamental figures. He believed that some deeper reality could be achieved by exploiting the sensations inspired by various symbols.

During the spring and summer of 1888 he worked alongside Emile Bernard. Both painters used heavy outlines in the hope of creating profoundly harmonious patterns. This new method of dividing a canvass into distinct sections became known as cloisonnism ("compartmentalisation").

In "Jacob Wrestling with an Angel", Gauguin portrays pious Breton women in national costume reflecting on the sermon which they have just attended. Two supernatural figures, Jacob and the Angel, wrestle in the background. Jacob is desperate to convince the Angel that he has repented of his sins and will not let the Angel depart until he has succeeded in doing so.

Gauguin thus combines a biblical scene with a depiction of everyday life. He uses the tree in the foreground as a device to separate the peasant women from the wrestling match which mirrors their own hidden torments. He creates a supernatural atmosphere through the use of heavily-outlined areas of flat and harshly contrasting colours. He also employs a sharp perspective, emphasising the foreground in order to draw the viewer's gaze towards the struggle of conscience taking place in the background.

Image source: The Yorck Project

Friday, February 23, 2007

At the Pond (1887)

Gauguin left Brittany in the autumn of 1886. He exhibited nineteen paintings at the Impressionist's Salon, but these symbolic dreamlike creations, which he considered profound, were merely regarded as pretentious.

Vibrant scenes of daily life by the likes of Monet and Degas were all the rage. Even when symbolism was warmly received, the critics preferred familiar themes such as the lazy Sunday afternoon on the banks of the Seine portrayed by Georges Seurat in his monumental picture: "Ile de la Grande Jatte". By contrast, Gauguin's use of extensive and largely flat blocks of colour was considered clumsy, even backward. His skill as a draftsman was also criticised.

Desperate for money, Gauguin travelled to Panama. He hoped to profit from the boom sparked by the construction of the canal. However, both he and his travelling companion, Charles Laval, an admirer of Gauguin from his Pont-Aven days, had to work as labourers until they could pay for their passage to the French colony of Martinique.

Gauguin painted "At the Pond" during his stay in Martinique. He uses several bright colours juxtaposed by numerous brushstrokes in a typically impressionist fashion. However, the principal features of this picture, i.e. the pond, the greenery, and the tree in the foreground, are all distinctly separate elements. The composition is thus abruptly divided between several constituent parts whose various colours create a contrasting pattern.

The dreamlike effect thus created is mirrored by the calm dignity of the abstract figures in the foreground. As is often the case with Gauguin, he does not merely paint a picture but also implies a deeper psychological meaning.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

Breton Girls Dancing (1886)

Paul Gauguin lived in the small village of Pont-Aven in Brittany during the summer of 1886. He was broke at the time and Brittany was a cheap place to live.

Shortly before moving from Paris to Brittany he sent his son, Clovis, then seven, to Coppenhagen to live with his estranged Danish wife. Clovis had just survived an attack of smallpox and Gauguin, formerly a prosperous stockbroker, was earning a pittance posting bills.

Gauguin may have been going through a rough patch but he was an extremely strong personality. Indeed, he quickly established himself as the leader of the hundred or so other artists who had also been attracted to Pont Aven by the cheap living and the beautiful Breton landscape.
Paul Gauguin: Breton Girls Dancing National Gallery of Art, Washington

In "Breton Girls Dancing", Gauguin develops his symbolic art in a rustic setting. He has a keen eye for local traditions and costumes. However, unlike the impressionists he has little interest in realism.

The dance has a dreamlike quality and the figures appear frozen and static. The juxtaposition of flat blocks of contrasting colour emphasised by use of straight lines creates a stark simplicity. Gauguin sees himself as a sophisticated observer of a primitive peasant ritual.
Image Source: The Yorck Project