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Spirits on Canvas

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

Debora Silverman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 494 pp., $60.00

The turbulent two months that Gauguin and van Gogh spent together in Arles in 1888 have been described in movies and popular novels as well as by art historians. They were, in many accounts, peintres maudits, quintessential Romantic artists who were mocked and misunderstood by conventional society in their own time and only later could be seen as tragic heroes of modern art.

Among the many recent books and exhibitions devoted to these artists, two in particular have original things to say. In Technique and Meaning in the Paintings of Paul Gauguin, Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and H. Travers Newton Jr. draw on the results of scientific study of Gauguin’s canvases to show how the use of unorthodox techniques and materials can be linked with the “primitivism” of earlier European and non-European arts, particularly with the bold painting of early Renaissance frescoes. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman analyzes the paintings of the two artists of the later 1880s in the light of their religious origins, van Gogh’s in Dutch Reformed Protestantism, Gauguin’s in Catholicism, particularly in the teachings of a leading Jesuit who dominated the seminary he attended in Orléans.

Both books demonstrate the great differences between the two painters, and show the arbitrariness of the label “Post-Impressionism.” Since Roger Fry organized the 1910 exhibition that gave currency to this term, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne have been linked together by it. The more closely we look into their paintings, however, the less they seem to suggest a coherent style. Seurat, the youngest of the four, pursued such a distinctive style that the entire movement called Neo-Impressionism centered on him; Cézanne, the oldest, belongs with his contemporaries, the Impressionists, rather than with the younger artists; van Gogh and Gauguin had vastly different conceptions of painting. Each learned from the Impressionists but traveled along divergent paths.

Technique and Meaning in the Paintings of Paul Gauguin is the first book showing not just that Gauguin apprenticed himself to the Impressionists, but also that he systematically created a new way of painting. Although most critics assumed there was a lurching irregularity in Gauguin’s shift from being a Sunday painter to being a serious apprentice before he became a full-time professional in 1885, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton demonstrate that his methods were calculated and orderly, and that the image of him as an amateur rebelling against all previous systems is quite wrong.

A professor of art history at Queen’s University in Canada, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski has been writing on Gauguin since 1974, and Newton, a fine arts conservator, has collaborated with him since 1984 in several essays on Gauguin’s techniques. In their new book, they concentrate on a handful of paintings that they were able to examine closely, using chemical analysis of pigments, X-rays, infrared and ultraviolet light, and special techniques of photography. These allowed them to analyze the progressive layers of a painting, from the particular kind of canvas or wood support and its initial preparation, to its priming (or lack of it), its underpainting or drawing, and its paint materials and how they were applied. Their results were then correlated with the dating and subjects of the paintings, as well as with ideas derived from the artist’s writings, and the accounts of witnesses who knew Gauguin.

Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton show how Gauguin worked out his own technique, gradually emphasizing the matte and flat appearance of his painted surfaces. He smoothed out the choppy brushstrokes of the Impressionists, integrating them with areas of relatively flat and uniform color to produce a decidedly more decorative effect. Like Renoir in the mid-1880s, he wanted to approximate the effects of Renaissance frescoes, both their decorative strengths and what he saw as their simple “primitive” qualities. Renoir, however, merely blotted out some of the oil in his pigments before applying them, and painted over a conventional layer of lead white, whereas Gauguin used complicated processes to create a more primitive, fresco-like result. In common with most other vanguard artists (not Renoir, however), he avoided varnish, which, like oily paint, produces surfaces that reflect light and therefore diminishes and homogenizes the intensity of pigments.

Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton can partly reconstruct the original appearance of pictures that have been distorted by relining, varnishing, and “restoration.”1 Technical study allowed the authors to conclude that after Gauguin met Camille Pissarro in the spring of 1879, he adopted some of Pissarro’s techniques, giving his canvases greater luminosity and using color more freely. Their research ends former doubts about just when this apprenticeship to Pissarro began. They also prove that in 1881 Gauguin was already preparing canvases with chalky coatings (“grounds”) that absorbed oil paint in order to produce a matte surface. In the years following, Gauguin adopted Pissarro’s and Degas’s habits of making preliminary drawings for figures and transferring them to painstakingly prepared canvases.

It was in Brittany between 1886 and 1890, first in Pont-Aven and then in Le Pouldu, that Gauguin pursued the myths of premodern religiosity; in the Breton countryside, he sought a “primitive” environment that suited his search for a kind of painting that would bear comparison with the arts of the early Renaissance and Middle Ages as well as with Japanese and other non-European arts. In September 1888, on the eve of joining van Gogh in Arles, he produced The Vision of the Sermon (National Gallery of Scotland), today one of his best-known works. In it we see Breton figures arranged in unnatural perspective and scale, facing a field in startling red that rises flatly upward to the surface, bisected by a slanting tree trunk in brown. Gauguin wrote to van Gogh, “I believe I have achieved in these figures a great rustic and superstitious simplicity.” The picture can indeed be seen as a manifesto in which Gauguin separates himself radically from the Impressionists, the Neo-Impressionists, and from academic painting.

Previous commentary on The Vision of the Sermon was partly frustrated by the lack of any chemical analyses of the paints and by the fact that the canvas earlier had been restretched and relined, a process which flattened it considerably. However, by using X-rays and microscopes Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton reveal the underlying layers of drawing, brushwork, and absorbent ground that show the care with which the artist constructed the expressive outlines and flatly colored zones of his composition. They also deduce convincingly that he mixed wax with his pigments in order to create saturated colors that would endure without varnish and its reflections, a technique common to mural arts but rare in easel painting.2

Such careful investigation, like archaeological studies of partly covered sites, allows us to understand the construction of the images we see. In Breton Girl by the Sea (1889; private collection), Gauguin used gouache, crayon, chalk, and pencil in order to create different surfaces that give the illusions of linen, wool, and flesh. The authors write that, in the drawing of the Breton girl,

In the foot chalk and crayon were applied with differing pressure to the textured paper surface, leaving more or less broken strokes that suggest the surface of weathered skin. In the apron, crayon mimics the rough surface of the fabric. These strokes contrast with the powerful, flowing gouache outlines that sculpt the figure of the bretonne. Gauguin also used gouache to color areas of the clothing and landscape. Where it is applied over the crayon strokes, as in the apron, the wax acts as a resist, largely rejecting the gouache. Areas of waxy crayon and matte gouache reflect light differently. The viewer interprets the different reflectances [different kinds of reflections] as resulting from changes in the plane of the depicted surface (folds in the cloth), thus giving the apron plasticity, weight, and texture.

So much has been written about Gauguin’s fateful stay with van Gogh in Arles (October to December 1888) that we might not think anything new could be said about it.3 However, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton show that the ways the two artists painted were utterly incompatible and made impossible the collaboration that van Gogh had hoped for. Certainly they exchanged ideas, but van Gogh’s thick paints and expressive brushwork were anathema to Gauguin, whose thin and flat surfaces were used for what he called “abstract” simplifications of form. Unlike van Gogh’s, these simplifications were not based on direct observation of nature.4 Van Gogh’s expressive brushwork is quite close to Monet’s of the same era, whereas Gauguin sought a different kind of surface. He wanted a synthesis of imaginative forms whose colors and shapes would communicate his own conceptions free of the restraints imposed by naturalism.

Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton therefore locate the reasons for the well-known standoff between van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles in artistic craft more than in the differences of temperament that have often been romanticized. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman also makes probing investigations of how the artists’ convictions were expressed in colors, shapes, and brushwork, not just in their subjects. She explains how their opposed views of art were founded in spiritual ideas that owed much to van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s educations. Gauguin studied at a Catholic junior seminary in Orléans from age eleven to fourteen. He was taught by the bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, founder of the seminary and a nationally known author of books on Catholic education. Ernest Renan, also a pupil of the bishop, described how Dupanloup had a daily interview with each student, although he did not say what was discussed.

The principles of the bishop’s teaching centered upon introspection and the imagination instead of knowledge of nature. In Silverman’s words, he stressed “cultivation of interior vision, which subordinated the operation of sensory sight to the experience of divine light.” Further, he taught that human beings have “a corrupted nature and…forewarned the children of an earthly existence fundamentally grounded in suffering, sorrow, and a dolorous reckoning with sin…. The lure and transience of sensual pleasures yielded only desolation and putrefaction….”

To a certain extent Dupanloup’s ideas reflected Catholic beliefs generally, but the particular emphasis of his principles echoes clearly to anyone familiar with Gauguin’s self-pitying letters and his autobiographical essays.5There we find his antinaturalism, his search for “abstract” and “synthetic” forms expressive of ideas and longings rather than mundane reality, his insistence upon his inner vision, but also his constant suffering and guilt about his sensual indulgences, and his acute awareness of the conflict between sin and salvation. In his Self-Portrait, “les misérables” (1888; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), he pictures himself as Victor Hugo’s outcast Jean Valjean, and in his Christ in the Garden of Olives we see Gauguin portrayed as Christ (1889; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach).

Historians familiar with Gauguin’s bohemian life, his cynicism, and his lapsed Catholicism have treated his writings and aspirations as remote from Catholic belief, but Silverman convincingly shows how thoroughly his mature life was in fact influenced by his boyhood education in the Church. From 1886 to 1890, most of his paintings explore Breton religiosity. He wanted to give The Vision of the Sermon to a local church, and a Breton statue of a crucifixion was the source of his Yellow Christ (1889; Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo), a copy of which he placed behind his own image in Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1889– 1890; private collection). His friend the artist Émile Bernard was an ardent Catholic, as were all of Gauguin’s followers in Brittany and Paris (they included Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, and others collectively known as “Nabis”); Silverman leaves no doubt about the connection between his ideas and the resurgence of Catholicism among advanced painters and Symbolist writers.

  1. 1

    Because of abundant proofs of such distortions, “conservation,” bearing different emphases, has largely replaced “restoration.”

  2. 2

    Their examination of The Vision of the Sermon allows the authors to discredit the claims by Émile Bernard (and the historians who believe him) that when he and Gauguin were working together in Brittany, it was Bernard who first used the techniques that Gauguin said were his own. By precise analysis of the preparation and underpainting of dated works by Bernard, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton clearly show that Gauguin used these techniques first, although he might have been encouraged by Bernard’s presence.

  3. 3

    There is promise of new interpretations in next autumn’s exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The ‘Studio of the South,’” curated by a team of researchers headed by Douglas Druick (September 22, 2001–January 13, 2002).

  4. 4

    Gauguin preferred the term “abstract” to “decorative” because art described by the latter term was seen as having a lower status. “Abstract” was a frequently used term in the nineteenth century in its meaning of drawing upon or out of nature. It did not signify an entire divorce from nature, as it came to mean in the twentieth century.

  5. 5

    Especially “Avant et après,” 1903, translated by Van Wyck Brooks as The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin (Heinemann, 1921).

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