Gauguin: Primitivism and "Synthetic" Symbolism

As is the case with Seurat and Cézanne, Gauguin's early work shows the influence of impressionism. Like them, he rejects the insubstantial quality of the impressionist brush stroke and quickly begins to develop his own style. In Gauguin's case, this consists of the use of vivid, bold colors which do not show a strong naturalistic bias, and a surface treatment that emphasizes the shapes of nature without the use of visible outlining. The forms begin to read more as decorative and separate forms than as a cohesive and natural landscape. The initial tendency towards compartmentalization is mitigated by his continued use of a more impressionist style of brushwork although this begins to change, as does the rejection of outlining, in 1888. In Les Alyscamps and Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin, we do not see his synthetic style yet although we certainly see many of the features associated with that style.
Gauguin: Sailboats, 1884 Gauguin: Les Alyscamps, 1888 Gauguin: Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin, 1889
Émile Bernard: Breton Women in a Meadow, 1888 Van Gogh: Memory of the Garden at Etten, 1888 Gauguin: Old Women at Arles, 1888

The change in his style may have owed something to the influence of his friend Émile Bernard and his paintings of Breton women, although other influences can also be identified (such as Seurat, Van Gogh, and Cezanne). For example, his growing friendship with Van Gogh probably led to an interchange of ideas between the two artists. Van Gogh's painting of the garden at Etten was done during a period when the two artists were often painting together and and working from the same subject. Some of their paintings from this period are almost indistinguishable in terms of style. The example by Gauguin, Old Women at Arles, seems to unite the influences of both Bernard and Van Gogh.

Gauguin: The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888

In The Vision after the Sermon, Gauguin did not choose a real subject, so to speak. The Breton women were real, but they are not the true subject of the painting. His subject is the vision and he tried to suggest both the realities of the women and that of their minds as they imagine the struggle. The painting uses a flat, bold plane of red contrasting with the white hats of the women.  The tree curving across the canvas contributes to the division of realities, as does the change in scale.  In addition, elements of the composition (the sweeping line of the tree; the forms of Jacob and the angel) are based on Japanese figures. This painting marks a distinct departure from impressionism in its decorative and abstract qualities, arrived at through the use of outlining and planarity, more exotic artistic sources, and the visionary theme. Gauguin, who wanted to convey spirituality in terms of abstraction, and who wrote about the source of abstraction as coming from the artist "dreaming in front of nature," seems to have made this painting a "pictorial equivalent" of his belief: the peasant religious women from Brittany are, in fact, dreaming in front of nature, and their vision, visible in the painting as an apparition, is limned in red and orange and other colors which depart from the natural, as do the proportions and lack of grounding to elements of this vision.

Another example of Gauguin's synthetic* symbolism is The Yellow Christ. The yellow of Christ's flesh and the blue outlining of his body create a decorative pattern somewhat evocative of a stained glass window in a medieval church. In this painting, the layered or striated background works against perceiving depth or distance.  In addition to other medieval religious sources, Gauguin appears to have been paying attention not only to the contemporary dress of religious Brittany women but again to the concurrent work of his friend Bernard. Gauguin's painting fuses Gothic imagery, unnatural coloring, an almost medieval sense of space, and references to contemporary life and art.  It is innovative in this fusion of artistic worlds, a fusion which might be understood as a metaphor for a fusion of different planes of reality.  In this case, planes of artistic reality signify planes of spiritual and secular reality.  At the same time, we might see it in reverse -- spiritual reality as a metaphor for the reality of the artist.  Yet, this metaphor in some respects is the painting itself.  One of the key differences between the symbolism of an artist such as Gustave Moreau and Gauguin is that Gauguin avoids the literary metaphor in his painting.  For the most part, his goal is to communicate without the intermediary of the literary source, and to do it directly through the painting itself.

*synthetic: at one time, the phrase "synthetic symbolism" was used to differentiate between the symbolism of Gauguin and that of the more literary and naturalistic artists such as Moreau. It tends to refer to the flat style with heightened coloration that Gauguin uses to "synthesize" two planes of reality.

Gauguin: The Yellow Christ, 1889 17th cent. wooden Christ from a church in Finistère

The Idea of the Primitive and Gauguin's Final Statement

Gauguin: Hail, Mary, 1891 Gauguin: Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks), 1892
Gauguin: Are you jealous?  1892 Gauguin: Mahan no atua (Day of the Gods), 1894 

For both Gauguin and Bernard (and later artists such as the German expressionists), the notion of leaving the presumed center of the world (Paris, in Gauguin's case) and going to Brittany or Tahiti signified a move not only away from urban culture but away from art which did not imply originality. To these artists, becoming like the "primitive" meant that the artist had become capable of a form of communication which is untouched by culture. Whether primitive refers to Tahiti, to the untrained or naive artist, to the child, or to the native, "primitive" vision began to signify the "true" vision, with true vision being the vision of the modern artist.  But there may be other levels of meaning to the Tahiti paintings, levels which cohere in the painting that Gauguin considered his "last testament."

Gauguin: Where do we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going? (1897-98; 
4' x 12.5')

Gauguin had received a seminary education in his youth. His religious beliefs never deserted him although he increasingly questioned the strictures of the traditional Catholic church.  This questioning reached a peak during his last years in Tahiti – when he was dying, destitute, isolated from the Tahitians because of his illness, and mourning the death of one of his daughters.

Did Gauguin exploit the culture he adopted in his search for the primitive or did he think he was giving something back?  Because he conceptualized his art as a form of spiritual communication, because he adhered to a symbolist belief that colors and images could communicate directly without words, and because his own approach in writing about religion was to ask questions without posing answers, he would seem to have believed that he was giving back spirituality in a form which was outside the dogma of the church and that through his painting, he might be able to engender the experience he had already associated with spiritual visions: dreaming in front of nature.  This belief of his may be more important to an explanation of Gauguin's turn to the "primitive" than many of the customary explanations given for the seeming interest of the avant-garde in the primitive in the late 19th and early 20th century art.  Although these reasons vary for each artist, in Gauguin's case they may derive from the fact that his own search for an accord with the religion he had studied and practiced led him to pursue the unorthodox, using unconventional images and style as a means of evading the dogma he decried in his letters and notebooks; that his search for “pictorial equivalents” of the answers to the catechism was rooted in a belief that words precluded new answers or ways of thinking; and that, in his words, it was not possible for humans to “plumb the mystery of our origin and future.”  This last belief, in particular, would have precluded the use of traditional painterly allegories (such as he saw in the work of Puvis de Chavannes or Moreau).  The other goal he sought, particularly in this "last testament," was the goal of offering what he described as an “imaginary consolation” to the person who wanted answers to the questions of human existence.

And finally, another idea to keep in mind is that the painting may not only be a metaphor of the spiritual search.  It may also be a metaphor of the artistic process.  It may be that the single image which resists translation into an art work is the image of the creative process.  To the extent that it can be translated, the artist searches for visual expressions of what Gauguin described as the “struggles of the painter’s thought,” as “volcanic flames,” as “superhuman”-- the inner vision in which the artist sees, as it were, with his eyes closed:

“It is all done from the imagination, at the tip of the brush...
At the very moment when the most intense emotions fuse in the depths of one’s being, at the moment when they burst forth and when thought comes up like lava from a volcano, is there not something like an explosion?  The work is created suddenly, brutally if you like, yet is it not great, and superhuman in appearance?”1
But we know, from the existence of studies, Gauguin did not create his works, especially one as large as “Where do we come from,” in one burst of feverish activity.  So we return again to the idea that much of the artist’s search (and not only Gauguin's) was a search for the means of expressing this sense of innovative and visionary thinking, and that this search led these artists to styles and subject matter which have been characterized as “primitive” in part because of the prevailing social belief that primitive expression is unschooled and uncultured, with both of those conditions signifying something true and archetypal, and something desired as an alternative to what was seen as a decadent or distasteful culture.
Keep in mind that we will encounter the idea of the primitive in the works of other artists, contemporary with and after Gauguin, and the meaning (as well as the "primitive source") will probably not be the same.  Personally, I wonder if we would be better off replacing the idea of the primitive with the idea of a search for authenticity.

What makes Gauguin modern in the end is the synthetic and syncretic nature of his art: contrasting and balancing western illusionism with non-western patterning, uniting Christian and non-Christian religious symbols, using religious morality tales as vehicles for narratives about eroticism and the abundance of nature.  Gauguin breaks open myths which are well-known, uses their structure but fills them with contradictory and new meanings.  Through his radical treatment of color, shape, and myth, he becomes a model for the 20th-century abstraction of Kandinsky and the later 20th-century surrealist goals of revitalizing mythology.

What does Gauguin contribute to the modern paradigm?  An increased emphasis on surface versus illusion, with surface referring less to the materiality of the painting than to the decorative, on one hand, and the ability of color and form to represent ideas without the benefit of literary translation, on the other.  It is in effect another version of an artistic development or debate over the work of art as the representation of something  versus the work of art as autonomous in itself. For Gauguin, the issue of autonomy relates to the autonomy of the idea present in the colors and forms.

1. Gauguin, cited in Debora Silverman, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), p. 387. Silverman's book is one of the best discussions I've read of the role of the spiritual in the work of both Gauguin and Van Gogh.