Gauguin rising

Cézanne had few direct imitators, let alone what might be called a school. And even the young Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), in whom his influence is most obvious, abandoned any trace of the master after only a few years. It should also be said that, in Picasso's rose and blue periods, just before his cubist phase, he had been strongly influenced by Gauguin and his school, and that the general outlines of this influence would powerfully reassert themselves after the brief interlude of analytic cubism had passed.

But what, in its broadest terms, was the nature of Gauguin's influence? It was an assertion of the sovereign right of the artist arbitrarily to transfigure reality in accordance with his most private impulses. How odd and aberrational a work like Gauguin's relief Soyez mystérieuses (Be mysterious) of 1890 must have seemed to contemporaries! This polychrome wood carving was made a year after the Volpini show, but it appears in the Cleveland exhibition, and it was doubtless similar in spirit to carvings that Gauguin had placed in that show. A naked young woman floats amid stylized waves, while disembodied mermaids hover about her. The words "soyez mysterieuses" appear out of nowhere—a shocking verbal intrusion into the conventions of European culture.

All of this seemed like a direct affront to the most inveterate habits of Western art. Since the late fourteenth century, Western art had been largely commited to a naturalistic view of the world. There had been moments, surely, of strengthening and abeyance in this tendency: mannerism and rococo permitted more liberties than did the High Renaissance or the baroque. In the aftermath of romanticism, an emotive freedom entered Western culture that was joined to an only partial liberation of form—just as in the Middle Ages there had been considerable formal and chromatic freedom, but at the level of society, rather than of the individual artist.

What Gauguin achieved, together with artists like Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and Bernard—but far more powerfully, because he was a far greater artist—was a fundamental reconception of visual reality and of mankind's relation to it. One-point perspective—which had held sway in the West since the early quattrocento—could henceforth be fractured and splayed, while Hindu totems collided with Mariological symbols, and human flesh lurched from yellow to green in the space of a few supercharged inches of pigment on canvas.

Consider Gauguin's Arlésiennes (Mistral) of 1888, one of the foremost masterpieces in the Cleveland show (see Fig. 1). Here all sense of depth has been stomped out. Dark yellow trees and a red fence are well on their way to pure form, and one of the two female figures in the middle ground is turning blue.

Perhaps it was the inherent destiny of Western art to reach this degree of freedom, rather as some later mariner would eventually have reached the New World by accident even if Columbus had never done so by design. But such was the eminence and artistic triumph of Paul Gauguin that he established such individual liberties as the bedrock of all subsequent art in the West. The fauves and the sundry schools of German expressionism would not have been possible without his precedent. Different though it was in form and intent, neither Dada nor surrealism would have asserted itself without the liberating example of Gauguin—nor for that matter would the various forms of abstraction that arose out of Wassily Kandinsky's earliest abstractions, which themselves emerged out of the expressionism of the Blaue Reiter. One can even argue that the all too contemporary tantrums heard in Basel and Chelsea represent nothing more than the latest unfolding of what Gauguin first revealed to the world in 1889, along the carmine-colored walls of Monsieur Volpini's Café des Arts.

Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 
is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from October 4 to January 18, 2010, and will be seen later at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

1 Quoted in Belinda Thomson, "Gauguin goes Public" in Heather Lemonedes, Belinda Thomson, and Agnieszka Juszczak, Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889 (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, and Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2009), p. 33.  2    Ibid., p. 29.

JAMES GARDNER is an art and architecture critic.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All