When Paul Gauguin first visited the small village of Pont-Aven in the summer of 1886, he was painting in the descriptive, Impressionist style that had become a standard for advanced art in Paris. By the time he returned to the village 18 months later, the standard had become a dull routine, a manner whose principal artists were well on their way to recognition and influence, leaving little room for also-rans.
The 39-year-old former stockbroker was destitute and despondent. He had abandoned his wife and children, and his early promise as an artist hadn’t come to much. Pont-Aven, a quaint little village of 1,500 on the Brittany coast southwest of Paris, had been an artists’ colony that attracted painters from throughout Europe for many years. He hoped it could become his own version of the Barbizon forest: a place apart from the supposed corruption of the modern urban world, where painting could be remade.
And so it did. At Pont-Aven a group of artists, including Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Maurice Denis and Paul Serusier, began to unyoke painting from its traditional moorings in descriptive naturalism.
No longer would a painting’s colors be bound to those of the worldly objects it depicted. No longer would its shapes record only those of the world seen beyond its frame. No longer would carefully rendered illusions of tangible objects in light-filled space supersede the decorative two-dimensionality of the canvas surface. Painting had more important things to do.
Art would instead begin to be asserted as an autonomous universe of its own. A painting’s visible connections to life would not just be made through visual mimicry of landscapes, people and events; rather, the connection would be fully drawn through the expansive variety of self-evident artistic decisions, executed by the artist. The commercial secularism of the modern industrial world would be infused with spirituality and the romance of imagination. Painting would be forever changed.
This remarkable story is pivotal to the history of Modern art, and neither fully overlooked nor fully examined. It’s also the deeply engaging subject of an exhibition of 84 paintings and 40 drawings, prints and small sculptures that opened Sunday at the San Diego Museum of Art. “Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven” means to survey the work of 21 European painters who worked in the village between the mid-1880s and the turn of the century.
At least, I think it does. There’s something odd about this show, something that doesn’t add up. The magnitude of the artistic event at Pont-Aven never really comes into focus in the museum’s crowded galleries. Some fine pictures can be seen, including a few by Gauguin; but even they seem strangely muted.
If an artistic revolution took place in the unlikely milieu of this conservative seaside village, a transformation led by one of the great painters of the last century, then where are the triumphant landmarks of that cataclysmic change?
Where is Gauguin’s 1888 “The Vision After the Sermon,” a hallucinatory image in which a serpentine row of traditionally dressed Breton women are smashed up close to the picture plane, gazing out beyond a looming tree trunk into a blood-red field, there to witness Jacob wrestling with a yellow-winged angel?
Where is “La Belle Angele” (1889), in which a pious Breton peasant sits encased, Buddha-like, within a mystical orb before a Polynesian idol and a cascade of pink flowers?
Well, “The Vision After the Sermon” and “La Belle Angele” are presumably where they always are--at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh and Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, respectively. They are not in the exhibition because the exhibition is not, after all, a survey of the School of Pont-Aven.
The show is instead a survey of Pont-Aven pictures found in the collection of Samuel Josefowitz, a Lithuanian-born entrepreneur who lives in Switzerland--although you won’t find that information stated in the show’s title, nor anywhere in the galleries, nor in the accompanying catalogue, nor in any press materials. Obviously, a survey of an artistic movement will be substantially different from a survey of a movement’s representation in a single private collection.
Which is not to say the Josefowitz collection is insubstantial. It is anything but. The seven paintings by Gauguin, 24 by Bernard, 14 by Serusier, six by Denis and the rest form what is surely the broadest overview of its subject anywhere. To have assembled such holdings is impressive.
One pleasure of the show is the abundance of little-known artists, such as the Swiss Cuno Amiet and the Dutch Jacob Meyer de Haan, who were part of the international circle of artists around Gauguin. Many, such as Ireland’s Roderic O’Conor and Poland’s Wladyslaw Slewinski, really aren’t much as painters. But the show makes the important point that the diverse nationalities of the artists who worked in Pont-Aven in the last 15 years of the 19th Century, and who provided a supportive following for the sizable ego of Gauguin, are part of the reason this Symbolist-inspired art spread its influence so quickly and decisively.
Another asset is the relatively rare opportunity to see Emile Bernard’s work in some depth. Bernard was intimately involved with important artistic currents of the day (he was an ardent champion of Van Gogh), and his example kick-started Gauguin. This is very much Bernard’s show. His two-dozen pictures make up nearly a third of its paintings.
The earliest are small, surprisingly engaging Impressionist works--especially one of a hay wagon loaded down with a big burst of yellow brush strokes--dated 1886. The precocious artist was all of 18, and already he had painted pictures more confident than any of those on view by O’Conor, Slewinski and others.
Some of his most accomplished works are also here. They include the pivotal “The Buckwheat Harvest” (1888) in which he launched his mature style, and the small but imposing “Yellow Christ” (1889), in which a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of the protagonist suggests the religious fervor at the core of his Symbolist art.
Still, despite its charms the show doesn’t work on its own terms, largely because Gauguin’s decisive transformation never materializes. The catalogue (which, incidentally, is riddled with typographical errors) is somewhat informative, but it doesn’t even identify who organized the show. Its American tour was coordinated by the San Diego Museum, but you get the feeling it was privately assembled and offered as a package. Why a museum exhibition of a remarkable private collection chose to misrepresent itself is anybody’s guess.
* San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, (619) 232-7931, through Oct. 1. Closed Mondays.