History, Characteristics of Pont-Aven School of Symbolist Painting.

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The Vision after the Sermon:
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888)
National Galleries of Scotland.
By Paul Gauguin.

Synthetism (c.1888-1894)
Developed by Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin


Expressionist Painting with Symbolism
Characteristics of Synthetism
Reaction Against Impressionism
Pont-Aven Artist Colony
Cafe Volpini Exhibition

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Expressionist Painting with Symbolism

The term Synthetism describes a style of Post-Impressionist painting which was developed during the 1880s by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Emile Schuffenecker (1851-1934), Emile Bernard (1868-1941), Louis Anquetin (1861-1932) and others. In an effort to break away from the Impressionist obsession with the study of light, Gauguin sought to develop a new style of painting based on two-dimensional areas of pure colour (that is, with few shaded areas or any type of 3-D modelling) and some strong lines. The techniques of Synthetism are exemplified in Gauguin's masterpiece Vision After the Sermon (1888, National Gallery of Scotland), one of the greatest modern paintings, which depicts two different levels of reality: the real world and the dream world. The name Synthetism was meant to refer to the "synthesis" of (1) simplified forms and colour schemes, with (2) the main idea or feeling of the subject, in order to produce a bolder artistic statement. Synthetism is strongly associated with the Pont-Aven artist colony in Brittany. Other expressionist painters based in Pont-Aven who practised Synthetism, included Jacob Meyer de Haan (1852-95), Charles Laval (1862-94), Paul Serusier (1863-1927), Charles Filiger (1863-1928), and Armand Seguin (1869-1903). In their own description of this new style of French painting, with its large areas of pure colour and black outlines, Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin preferred to use the name Cloisonnism after the medieval cloisonne technique of enamelling.




Gauguin, Schuffenecker, Bernard and their circle in France coined the term Synthetism to refer to their painting of the late 1880s and early 1890s. Painted in a radical, expressive style, in which forms and colours were deliberately distorted and exaggerated, their pictures synthesized a number of different elements: the appearance of nature, the artist's 'dream' before it and the formal qualities of form and colour. Gauguin, the leader of the group, felt that direct observation of nature was only a part of the creative process, and that the input of memory, imagination and emotion intensified those impressions, resulting in more meaningful forms.


Reaction Against Impressionism

Gauguin had participated in Impressionist exhibitions in Paris during the early 1880s, but by 1885 was disillusioned with their insistence on describing only what they saw in front of them. He sought new themes and a new painting technique to achieve 'the translation of thought into a medium other than literature.' His aim was to paint not so much what his eye saw, but what he felt, and consequently he eschewed both the naturalism of Impressionism and the scientific preoccupations of the Neo-Impressionism movement, instead creating an art in which colour is used for dramatic, emotional or expressive effects. Gauguin drew on many different sources for his inspiration. Like the Pre-Raphaelites in England, he studied medieval tapestry art for its boldness and drama; like the Impressionist painters, he learned about line and composition from Japanese woodcuts. He became passionate about folk art, the stone sculptures of Breton churches and prehistoric art.

Pont-Aven Artist Colony

During a crucial period for Gauguin in the late 1880s he worked in Brittany, where he became familiar with the Post-Impressionism of Pont-Aven painters Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin (1861-1932), who were developing the Cloisonnist style, an important contemporary influence on Gauguin's Synthetist work. Gauguin's key early work, The Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888), painted while he was in Pont-Aven, reads like a visual manifesto of his revolutionary ideas. The line and spatial organization of the picture are indebted to Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts (the wrestling figures were even taken from a drawing by Hokusai), and the large areas of unmodulated colour and the heavy outlines relate closely to the Cloisonnist style. But the result is uniquely Gauguin's, and synthesis is the key to its success.

Cafe Volpini Exhibition

In 1889 Gauguin and his new friends Emile Bernard, Charles Laval (1862-94) and Schuffenecker organized an exhibition to show their progressive work in opposition to the official art exhibition at the fourth Paris Universal Exhibition, of which the star attraction was the Eiffel Tower (1887-89). L'Exposition de Peintures du Groupe Impressioniste et Synthetiste was held at the Cafe Volpini in Paris and included both their work and that of others with whom they had worked in Brittany, such as Anquetin and Daniel de Monfried (1856-1929). Reviewing the show, sympathetic critics, such as Albert Aurier and Felix Feneon, praised Gauguin's simplification of means and premeditation. Gauguin was launched as a leading figure of avant-garde art, to rival Georges Seurat, founder of Pointillism.


He was also embraced as a leader of the Symbolism movement by a number of poets and artists. In later works, such as Day of the Gods (Mahana No Atua) (1894) or Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going To? (1898), both painted while he was living and working in Tahiti, the symbolic content was increasingly important, though the symbols remained private, provoking questions, not providing answers. In fact, Gauguin deplored literary content, preferring the mysterious and elusive universe of sensations. In 1899 he wrote: Think also of the musical role colour will henceforth play in modern painting. Colour, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force.


Gauguin's modern art proved deeply influential to following generations of artists. During his lifetime, the example of Synthetist work provided important inspiration for the Nabis (1890s), the Symbolism Movement (1886-1900), the international Art Nouveau style (1890-1914) and its German variant Jugendstil, as well as the Parisian colourist style of Fauvism (1905-6). Subsequently, the Expressionists, along with various abstract artists and followers of Surrealism were to credit Gauguin in the development of their work. In rejecting the idea of the artist's fidelity to the represented world, Gauguin helped pave the way for the abandonment of representational art altogether.


Synthetist-style expressionist paintings can be seen in several of the best art museums around the world, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; the National Gallery, London; and the National Galleries of Scotland.

We acknowledge with gratitude the use of material from Styles, Schools and Movements by Amy Dempsey (Thames & Hudson, 2007), one of the leading guides to modern French painting, and one we recommend for any students of art in France during the late 19th century.

• For the chronology of symbolism, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about symbolist or expressionist paintings, see: Homepage.

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