This essay is part of an extended series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.
Summary: This essay was inspired by a close examination of a map of France and a subsequent study of the history of Brittany. The result is a different view of a very famous work, Paul Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (1888), as it is re-interpreted from a political perspective that evokes a discussion on colonisation in relation to art history. Although the painting is stylistically avant-garde, Gauguin’s work is culturally very conservative.
By Jeanne Willette
Of all the avant-garde artists, perhaps no individuals have been so romanticized or been the subjects of so many hagiographies than Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Movies have been made, songs have been sung, and countless books have been written, and yet it is difficult to see the art that these artists made. The paintings of van Gogh and Gauguin have been so veiled by their biographies, that it is almost impossible to not interpret their works as manifestations of the artists’ psychological states or as stations along the way of their mutually tragic pilgrimages. Both men were experts in self-fashioning, writing their own discourses through letters and autobiographies, which, in the case of Gauguin’s Noa Noa, were potent mixtures of adventures, confessions, and self-aggrandizement. The frank and complex portrait of van Gogh emerges from his largely professional correspondence, frequently with his brother Theo van Gogh. Due to this trove of primary documents, which gives the reader access to the personal voices of the artists, Van Gogh and Gauguin are often portrayed by art historians as aesthetic martyrs who were misunderstood in their own time and who suffered and died in the cause of authentic art.
Not to spoil a good story, but it is possible to scrape off the crust of dramatization and reveal the more mundane fact that both van Gogh and Gauguin understood themselves to be in the art business and planned their careers and their range of subject matter accordingly. Vincent van Gogh was from a family of art dealers, with his father – a priest – being the outlier in the clan. Although his biographies tend to emphasize his time as a preacher, van Gogh had also been an art dealer in Paris and London. Gauguin, on the other hand, had a career as a stockbroker and was well positioned to understand the concept of art as an investment.
The two men were dependent financially on Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother, an art dealer who ran the branch of Boussod, Valadon & Cie in Boulevard Montmartre. The artists worked on commission for Theo, who paid them a monthly stipend in exchange for their completed canvases. Part of the generation that followed the Impressionists and took their cues from the independent artists, van Gogh and Gauguin took care to paint directly for a specific art market, targeting the collector base receptive to avant-garde art. Divining their intentions by examining their output, it can be ascertained that the artists defined “avant-garde” not as provocative content, such as that of Courbet or Manet, but as stylistic innovation. Van Gogh, in particular, produced entirely conventional content and themes consciously chosen to attract buyers who were interested in being artistically, not politically, advanced. That said, both artists developed signature styles that differentiated them from their artistic fore bearers and from their colleagues. Van Gogh extended and exaggerated the close relationship with nature that characterized Impressionism, while, in creating his own unique profile Gauguin broke decisively from Georges Seurat’s new scientific technique of “pointillism.”
There are indications that Gauguin avoided the exhibitionary outlet for avant-garde art, the Salon des Indépendants, which had been founded by Seurat and his confrères. In short, thanks to Theo van Gogh, both Vincent and Gauguin depended less upon the salon system and hewed more closely to the path of the developing artist-dealer model. Both kept a wary eye on the new wave of art critics, who would become the explicators for their generation. Both would also think of showing their work beyond the confines of the Parisian art world. As his unresolved feud with Emil Bernard over who “invented” Cloisonnism suggested, Gauguin, in particular, betrayed a keen understanding of the cliques and in-flghting among the ranks of the avant-garde. As a former businessman, he seemed to have taken on the understanding that it was important to position himself as a leader, befitting his age and experience, among younger artists. Once he outgrew his years of apprenticeship under Pissarro and Cézanne, Gauguin’s awareness of the need to respond to market preferences for topics in the visual arts drove his career path from Pont-Aven to Arles to Le Pouldu to Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands, seeking new subjects for the armchair Parisian collector. But it is here, on the question of content, that a distinct difference is revealed between the choices made by Gauguin and van Gogh, especially as the paintings of Gauguin began to align with one of the most highly charged political issues of his time – the policies of internal colonization and imperialism within France itself.
In 1886 Paul Gauguin arrived in Brittany, a site of a contestation of power between the nation of France and the Breton peoples. Among the most celebrated paintings of Gauguin’s post-Impressionist period are those completed in the remote village of Pont-Aven, such as Vision After the Sermon (1888) and Yellow Christ (1889), albeit during different visits. We are told, as part of the romantic legend of the half-Peruvian half-French artist, that Gauguin fled the unbanization of Paris for the historic hinterlands of Brittany where, we are told, industrialization had yet to take root. Even today, there is no direct train to Pont-Aven. One must catch a bus at Quimper or Concarneau for the last hour of the pilgrimage to the small estuary town. Mainstream art history characterizes Gauguin as seeking refuge in Pont-Aven as an alternative from the high cost of living in Paris and these same sources note, a few pages later, that Gauguin had to flee the area due to his debts. Obviously Brittany was beyond his means, so why did Gauguin go? Far from being some untamed and unspoiled primitive enclave, in the 1880s Brittany was a very popular tourist region. At the height of the season, artists, particularly from England and America, came to the modest towns along the northern coast and settled into a summer of painting. According to all accounts, many artists attempted to cash in on this burgeoning tourist trade and their art became part of the traffic in scenes of “primitive” peasants performing their status for their city cousins. For Gauguin, going to Brittany was actually a calculated career move.
From Millet to Breton to Bastian-Lepage, painting peasants had been both political and popular.[i] On one hand, these peasants had to be, as Eugen Weber explained it, transformed into “Frenchmen”[ii] – that is, modernized and taught to act and speak properly. On the other hand, these “barbaric savages” who lived “brutish” lives, seen as barely removed from that of “animals,” were a source of fascination to the inhabitants of Paris. But, contrary to the impressions of art audiences viewing peasants painted on canvases, there was no such thing as “peasants” except as a category of Otherness, dividing barbarism from civilization, the city from the country, the modern from the traditional.
Despite the fact that peasant painting had become a reliable genre of painting, decades and geography separated van Gogh and Gauguin from their predecessors. Van Gogh’s paintings that included peasants were either inspired by or based on previous works by Millet, and when he wasn’t interpreting the older artist, van Gogh distanced himself from his peasant subjects who act as punctuation marks in the rural landscapes. In contrast, Gauguin did not tie the peasants he painted to the land, but explored their role in the unique culture of Brittany. In so doing Gauguin, probably unwittingly, pointed out a crucial fact that the peasants of the Île de France were different from those of the Loire Valley, who were in a completely different political situation from those of Brittany. And the peasants of Brittany, as art historian Robert Herbert pointed out, lived in a “special province.”[iii] Located in the northern and western most reaches of France, Brittany, as its name indicates, is not French nor, except by accident of geography, is it a part of France. Culturally, Brittany is Celtic in origin, the last refuge of Celts driven north by the imperialism of Rome in Gaul and later settled by more Celts fleeing from England. As the once and possible site for the legends of King Arthur, Brittany could be termed “Great/er Britain.” And herein geography tells the tale of Gauguin’s celebrated paintings of Breton piety, especially the most famous, Vision After the Sermon.
At first glance it would seem impossible, after one hundred years of writing, to add anything of value to the interpretations of the well-known work. Much has been written on Gauguin’s final break with Impressionism, his definitive move to flat surfaces and bright colors outlined in dark strokes, as well as his well known “primitivism” found in the Breton country, triggering the artist’s move to Symbolism and spirituality, or as he put it, “abstraction.” But when one shifts attention from the creation of the signature style of Gauguin to the map of France itself, the perspective on Vision After the Sermon changes significantly.
Unfold a map of France, then pick up a compass and place the needle precisely at the point where the provinces of Bourgogne, Auvergne and Centre-Val-de-Loire converge at the center of the nation and draw a circle. Immediately, one becomes aware of a curious feature of the geography. The region of Bretagne projects outward, jutting out beyond the sweep of the arc of the compass needle, pointing away from France. Almost separated from France, Brittany is a sizable peninsula that parallels the southern coast of England. When Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven in 1886, Brittany had been subjected to a century of linguistic conversion and religious oppression to which the inhabitants reacted with an odd mixture of sullen compliance and guerrilla resistance. The inhabitants of Brittany had been placed in the contradictory position of being a popular attraction, denoting the complex heritage of France, while at the same time, they were being systematically robbed by the French government of their uniqueness on two fronts, language and religion. It is into this uncomfortable mix of tourism and imperialism that Paul Gauguin entered, stage right, to record the last scenes of a beleaguered people. That is why Vision After the Sermon is less a spiritual experience or an experiment in Symbolism on the part of the artist, than a record of a culture being extinguished.
When Paul Gauguin painted Vision After the Sermon in 1888, France, after centuries of being a contiguous territory, was slowly defining itself as a modern unified “nation.” Unlike America, which invented itself, European nations came together over time through rites of conquest or rituals of marriage or through centuries of cohabitation. Late nineteenth century France was still pulling itself together, attempting to be a nation in more than name. For hundreds of years the central power in Paris had tangled with the contentious regions within their grasp, such as Languedoc in the south, where the Cathar Wars bloodied the thirteenth century. As its geological reach towards England suggests, Brittany was semi-autonomous if not completely independent of the French government in Île de France. The Celtic culture was so singular and the Breton language so akin to the tongues of Ireland and Wales that for centuries the French kings made little effort at communication or conversion and left the stubborn people to their own devices, satisfying their royal honor through emissaries or local governors. The Bretons accepted Christianity late in life and mixed it with local Celtic mythology, creating a rich brew of a unique belief system. The secular French Revolution attempted to bring Brittany into a new union but the speakers of Brezhoneg proved to be, in the opinion of the new government, reactionary and backward, too attached to the old ways. It is at this point that the struggle to make of France a modern nation began and the point of departure – a contested issue even today – was language. The idea of “France” would be based upon speaking French, the French language, or the langues d’oïl, once spoken only by the elites in the Parisian region. Indeed, unlike other nations, such as Belgium and Switzerland, where multiple languages prevail, the second article of the French constitution states that there is only one language in the Republic – French. To be French is to speak French. I speak therefore I am.
Six years before Gauguin painted Vision After the Sermon, Ernest Renan attempted to define the concept of a “nation” in a famous speech at the Sorbonne in 1882. On the sensitive and all important topic of language, Renan equivocated: “Language invites people to unite, but it does not force them to do so,” he declared, before diving even more deeply into questionable utterances: “An honourable fact about France is that she has never sought to win unity of language by coercive measures.” Through a series of idealizing statements, Renan attempted to define a nation at a turning point in the relations between Brittany and the rest of France. In the 1880s Brittany was still not giving in, and in fact has never accepted the idea of “France” based on Parisian culture. But the language of the region was nevertheless adapting to the encroaching presence of outsiders. Due to a divisive system of shaming children who spoke Brezhoneg, most Breton people had some knowledge of French, but the older citizens cherished their indigenous patois.
Beyond language, the second force that was pushing the Bretons towards a manageable homogenization was the Catholic Church. The peasants of Brittany retained their Druidic inheritance and practiced a form of very early Christianity that combined the old ways with a more modern Catholicism, a belief system that withstood the scorn of the atheistic ideology of the French Revolution. However sincere the religious beliefs of the Breton people, their paganistic practices were not in line with the official Catholic religion. Their local interpretation of Catholicism was mocked as mere “superstition,” while the Church itself was acting as an arm of the government, bringing these “deviants” in line via a veil of religious tolerance for tourists. Gauguin was in Pont-Aven during this time of transition and it could be said that the peasants of Brittany were not so much fighting against the established religion or even the government itself, as they were involved in a rear guard action to preserve their indigenous culture against the claims of imperialism.
To further complicate matters, as the railways of France began to change the country, the magnitude of what had been lost was becoming realized. Brittany, supposedly resistant to industrialization, was one of the last regions where the general public had made the conscious decision to resist the present by retaining their unique past. But one should not assume that what Gauguin witnessed was a genuinely “primitive” condition in Pont-Aven. As early as 1980, Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock pointed out[iv] that Brittany was in the process of being modernized, however subtly. The paintings by Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard show Breton women working in the wheat fields, which signify the reclamation of lande or waste land to such an extent that women, who did not do hard labor, were working outside in the strong summer sun harvesting the newly claimed fields. Although Brittany was impoverished, there was enough money for the peasants to take advantage of the presence of the railroads, which brought in new fabrics and laces and ribbons, adorning aprons and coiffes, or headdresses in unpietistic displays of fashion sense. The painters of Pont-Aven also deliberately left out the machines of mechanized farming, freezing Brittany in a historical backwater and creating a myth of timelessness and nostalgia well suited to sentimental Parisian and English audiences. As Patrick Young put it, by the 1880s, Brittany was “enacting”[v] its condition of Otherness as a performance of “primitivism” for a gullible audience of true believers.
It would be improper to impose anachronistic attitudes upon Gauguin and the artists who painted the rural areas. Whether or not they believed in what is clearly to us today – that is, the denigrating language of the discourse of the colonizers describing Bretons as “savages” and “monkeys” – is important to highlight, while also understanding that it is not the complete picture. They were men of their own time. It is not always discussed but Vincent van Gogh betrayed a casual anti-Semitism in his letters, and, after several unsettling revolutions that had only further empowered the central government of Paris, it is doubtful that the artists were making political statements favoring the culture of the peasants. All evidence indicates that the Bretons made “good copy” for artists, who enjoyed painting the picturesque costumes of colorful characters with whom they had limited communication. Paul Gauguin would be but one more of these outsiders invading Breton territory, and despite his self-proclaimed status as a “savage” who clopped around Pont-Aven wearing wooden clogs, he was an alien interloper who used Brittany and its inhabitants for his own commercial purposes. While the hybridity of Japanese prints and peasant painting marked Gauguin’s work as unique as the Breton culture he interpreted, the basic content – the peasant as Other – was indistinguishable from the art of the mainstream academic artists. Whether intentionally or not, the peasant paintings, whether Salon or avant-garde, were exercises in the imperialistic power of a modernizing nation intent on a colonial mission.
Visually the avant-garde aspects of Vision After the Sermon can be measured by comparing Gauguin’s painting of Brittany to that of Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s Breton Women at a Pardon, painted in 1887 and exhibited in 1889 at the Salon des Artistes Français.[vi] This juxtaposition of tradition and avant-garde, of academy and vanguard, was not witnessed in Paris because Gauguin eschewed the avant-garde Salon des Indépendants – possibly due to his rivalry with Georges Seurat’s pointillism. I was actually a salon in Brussels, Les Vingt, where Vision was first exhibited in 1889. While Dagnan-Bouveret’s work was certain to receive good reviews in Paris, Gauguin’s painting caused, according to critic Octave Maus, “hilarity” among the sophisticated audience attending the cutting edge exhibition in Belgium. Gauguin’s former teacher Pissarro was dismayed and deplored the artist’s plunge into mysticism, stating that “he is taking a step backwards.” Gauguin was not invited back to Les Vingt the next year. Looking back, we can say that the early failure of Vision After the Sermon was due almost entirely to its radical stylistic divergence from the expected naturalism of the mainstream salons and to its opposition to the prevailing avant-garde styles, Impressionism and the scientific approach to Impressionism by Seurat and his followers.
Vision After the Sermon did not fit in with the academy nor did it rest easily with the avant-garde. Indeed, the stylistic breakthrough by Gauguin in Brittany could have well retarded the rise of his reputation. In contrast, van Gogh seemed far more familiar to the avant-garde and, at the time of his death, he was on the verge of becoming well known and accepted by the avant-garde establishment. In 1990, the new art critic Albert Aurier began a discourse on van Gogh; but it was not until March 1891 when Aurier published “Le Symbolisme en Peinture: Paul Gauguin” in Mercure de France that Gauguin found a suitable movement (or the right movement found him). That year, Theo van Gogh died and Gauguin, at the end of his emotional and financial tether, left France for the South Seas, thus losing his place in what should have been the next step towards building his career. The Brittany paintings Gauguin left behind in France were, in terms of subject matter and content – the inhabitants of Brittany – as conservative as those of Dagnan-Bouveret, displaying an identical colonizing perspective on the internal imperialism being perpetrated upon the Breton people by the government of France. The near identical approach of Gauguin and Dagnan-Bouveret to the Breton peasants, indicates that both artists viewed their subjects through a typically colonial “gaze” of inherent superiority mirroring the French mindset in an age of imperialism. With a businessman’s eye to the customer base, Gauguin, like the Impressionists before him, appropriated a very popular subject in order to appeal to a wide audience. In fact, these two very different artists were engaging in a discourse that the post-colonial theorist, Homi Bhabha would call a hundred years later “Nation and Narration”: i.e., the engendering of a nation through a unifying discourse. In order to define the totalizing idea of France, the artists marked out the Other for exclusion, opening a gap of difference that proposed to both celebrate and eradicate the old ways of the speakers of Brezhoneg.
The difference between the imperialistic Orientalism of Gérôme towards the Middle East and the primitivism of Gauguin towards Brittany begins to vanish when one considers that “Going Native,”[vii] for Gauguin, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau noted, rested on what the artist considered to be the “animal” nature of the Breton peasant women. It is telling that, although the Breton males wore equally distinctive regional costumes, Gauguin focused on those most without power (women and children), who were depicted in their “natural” habitat by a tourist artist, acting as an anthropologist studying “natives.” Predictably Gauguin, a few years after his adventures in Brittany, shifted his quest for the primitive “animal woman” to subjects of the south Pacific; but this move to Tahiti was yet another colonial quest. When the paintings of Gauguin and his forays into Brittany are looked at in relation to Brittany itself and to the history of the region, the works morph from un/conscious “primitivism” to an imperialistic career strategy in which the artist was performing his favorite role as a “savage” “Peruvian”, while the peasant of Brittany was performing as a superstitious relic of a forgotten age, enacting numerous rituals designed to fascinate tourists. It is unlikely that either actor, in their present history, was explicitly aware of the exchange of performances; but there is a certain irony that, in this interaction, it may have been the artist, in his perfect sincerity towards his art, who saw him/herself as the innocent. As Gauguin wrote to van Gogh of Vision After the Sermon,
I believe that in my figures I have attained a great simplicity, which is both rustic and superstitious. The whole thing is very severe. As far as I’m concerned, in this picture the landscape and the struggle exist only in the imagination of the people whom the sermon has moved to prayer. That’s why there is a contrast between the people, depicted naturally, and the struggle in the unnatural and disproportional landscape.
The journey of Gauguin’s painting of visionary peasants precisely traces the trajectory of the financial fortunes for avant-garde art, from failure and rejection to acceptance and fame in thirty years. Completed in September 1888, Vision After the Sermon was a painting without a home, free-floating outside the French exhibitions, both academic and avant-garde. Although Gauguin offered the work to a local church, after the gift was refused its life was spent on the art market, its intended destination. After the exhibition at Les XX, the painting lived at Theo van Gogh’s gallery Boussod & Valadon until it was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 1891 to Henri Meilheurat des Pruraux. After some time, des Pruraux’s wife then sold it to Ambroise Vollard, who finally sold it to Michael Sadler. Having painted the religious theme of Jacob Wrestling the Angel in Brittany, Gauguin died struggling with his own demons in 1903. Over twenty years later, the peasant women in Vision After the Sermon came home to Great Britain, as, finally, following Sadler’s possession, Vision After the Sermon was offered to the National Gallery of Scotland for 1100 pounds.[viii]
[i] Philip Gilbert-Hamerton. The Present State of the Arts in France (London: Seeley and Co. Limited, 1892)
[ii] Eugen Weber. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976)
[iii] Robert L. Herbert. “Peasants and ‘Primitivism.’” From Millet to Léger: Essays in Social Art History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) Herbert mentioned the pioneering work of Denise Lalouch’s 1977 book, Peintres de la Bretagne : découverte d’une province, which has not been translated into English.
[iv] Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock. Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed (Manchester University Press, 1996)
[v] Patrick Young. Enacting Brittany: Tourism and Culture in Provincial France, 1877-1939 (Surry: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012)
[vi] Gabriel P. Weisberg. Against the Modern. Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition (Dahesh Museum of Art, 2002)
[vii] Abigail Solomon-Godeau. “Going Native. Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism.” Race-ing Art History. Edited by Kymberly N. Pinder (London: Routledge, 2002)
[viii] Belinda Thompson. Gauguin’s Vision (National Galleries of Scotland, 2005)