I can see Gauguin now, on the beach [near Pont-Aven], with his eagle's nose, clear sailor's eyes, longish black hair, beret, bathing trunks and 40-year-old's belly. He reminded one of a fairground barker; a troubadour; or a pirate. . . . He exuded energy from every pore. . . .
-- Paul-Emile Colin
Were Paul Gauguin active today, he would be the sort of artist featured in boldface on Page Six. He was a malcontent, a brawler, a cad. Ever adventurous, he traveled far and wide to find cheap habitats, preferably near interesting motifs. When he died at the age of 54 in Tahiti in May 1903 from what Belinda Thomson calls "ignominious circumstances," he left behind the ravishing Technicolor dreams he painted.
That November Ambroise Vollard held a show in his gallery in Paris filled with work from the South Seas, which complemented five paintings and four studies on display at the Salon d'Automne. Three years later, the Salon d'Automne mounted a full dress retrospective. The Fauves were duly influenced by Gauguin's paintings, wood carvings, prints, monotypes and ceramics. As was Pablo Picasso and scores of others.
To observe the centennial of Gauguin's death, the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Quimper is presenting "L'Aventure de Pont-Aven et Gauguin" (to Sept. 30, 2003). The exhibition is filled with one revelation after another. After he came in contact with the community of artists huddled on the west coast of Brittany, Gauguin's art changed considerably. While scholars and critics acknowledge the role played by friends and colleagues, their pictures, prints and wood carvings are today mostly known from black-and-white reproductions and are seldom seen in person. Now anyone with the admission fee of seven Euros can see first-hand what they have been told for years about the circle of painters Gauguin joined on four separate occasions during 1886, 1888, 1889 and 1890.
The exhibition further differentiates among disparate personalities, such as mile Bernard, Charles Laval and Paul Sérusier, who comprised the community of artists who worked in and around Pont Aven during the 1880s and 1890s and even earlier. Their idiosyncrasies, shared themes and range of approaches to landscape are cogently analyzed. Henceforth, whenever someone mentions Roderic O'Conor or J.F. Willumsen or Maxime Maufra, it will be easier to match the name with a picture.
Gauguin belongs to that category of painters who will themselves to greatness. He had to work a little harder than those who are more naturally skillful. Consequently, he needed to be ruthlessly self-critical. Settling for stuff that was merely okay wasn't an option. To achieve art that was unique and gripping, he had to practice patience and perseverance, qualities not generally associated with him.
Gauguin's early work isn't particularly promising. It picks up a bit with a series of Czannesque still lifes. But as impressive as his arrangements of fruit and flowers executed in the manner of the Master from Aix are, they are not "original."
In 1884, Gauguin moved his family from Paris to Rouen. A few months later, his wife and children went to Denmark. Joining them in Copenhagen, the former stockbroker returned to Paris in June 1885, where he spent a few weeks with the family of Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, another painter whose work is on view in the show in Quimper. Relocating to Dieppe, the practicing Impressionist made a brief visit to London. After that, he stayed in Paris for almost a year before visiting Pont-Aven.
Several American and British artists had already put the remote edge of Brittany on the artistic map. Their Salon-style paintings serve as a prologue to "L'Aventure de Pont-Aven et Gauguin." These include La Sorcière bretonne, a scene with picturesquely dressed characters -- in wooden shoes, no less -- who gather around a sick child. A transplanted Philadelphian, Robert Wylie, painted it in 1872. Henry Mosler, a native of Cincinnati, is represented by a scene he executed in 1879 in which a prodigal son appears at his parent's deathbed. William Bouguereau painted Breton subjects, too. A saccharin brother and sister in a tranquil setting dates from 1871.
Before he left for Pont-Aven, Gauguin wrote his wife, "One can still live most cheaply in Brittany." There, in his own words, he could "create art in a backwater." While he was a card carrying Impressionist, his younger colleagues in Pont Aven -- Henry Moret, Laval, Bernard, Schuffenecker -- were enthralled with pointillism. Their palettes were more eclectic; their compositions, flatter.
Gauguin's scenes of the countryside have a quasi-generic character. It's the details -- costumes, animals, activities -- not the landscape settings that convey local color. In 1886, he depicted an unexceptional Breton girl in white cap, apron and wooden shoes looking down on sheep grazing near a house with a smoking chimney. Another work from this year represents women laundering clothes in a stream by a cottage. This is Impressionism at its most rustic.
In at least two views of adolescents bathing, Gauguin is already engaged with ideas and images associated with his later art from the South Seas. Young boys bathing in the lower right of one picture practically blend into green grass and blue water, a device he will reintroduce in future canvases. And the nude women seen from the rear in a scene from 1887 belonging to a museum in Buenos Aires predate similarly posed natives on panels from the 1890s belonging to MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum and a private collection in Paris. Trees rather than waterfalls structure the Breton work. And that's part of the fascination of "L'Aventure de Pont-Aven et Gauguin" -- you discover the provocative painter already wrestling with themes more associated with art he executed in the Marquesas and other exotic locales.
If you didn't know there were paintings by Gauguin in this show, you might not pause by these pictures. Some wonderful ceramic pieces incorporating Breton figures, however, dated 1886-87 and executed in Paris, could not be more inventive. Telling his wife in a letter about the enthusiastic response these vases and pots were garnering from his colleagues, he added, "they are probably too artistic to sell."
In other correspondence in which he claims that the other painters in Pont-Aven constantly ask his advice and council, Gauguin emerges as a braggart. The work on view in Quimper underscores this notion. Though Bernard may not be everyone's cup of tea, he clearly found his own voice before Gauguin. Bands of unusual color foreshadowing Brice Marden's "Grove Group" paintings as well as the spacing of the fruit and tableware in Bernard's still life of 1887 are harbingers of Modernist practice.
In 1888, the artist who was Gauguin's junior by 20 years set a group of Breton woman on a field of yellow green; and they would appear to be floating in indeterminate space if not for the brushstrokes that anchor them in place. Bernard hits his stride in 1888. If only what he was depicting were not so boring and dull. Ditto Charles Laval and his figures of 1888.
While this band of avant-guardists explore a host of good ideas, Gauguin is the only one among them who executes work which sparkles with excitement and energy.
Masterpieces such as the Yellow Christ from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and La Belle Angele from the Musee d'Orsay aren't included in "L'Aventure de Pont-Aven et Gauguin." What a piety. It would have made the show even more memorable. Dating from 1889, they both let you see how Gauguin quickly grasped ideas about color, composition and content from his colleagues in Brittany. The Loss of Virginity, painted in 1890-91 just before his first trip to Tahiti and absent as well from this survey, additionally illuminates what Gauguin took from Bernard and Charles Filiger and what he brought to the table himself. These artists simplified the world around them, worked with unusual palettes and depicted pious, hard-working peasants. But Gauguin possessed something which makes his canvases and works on paper compelling, not just interesting.
In the end, this show celebrates what sets Gauguin apart from the others -- something that, for a while now, we have tended to forget: all artists are not created equal.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.