193 – Visionary

Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

From Shaping Impressionism last week, I am moving on to After Impressionism, the big blockbuster of a show at the National Gallery which I will introduce this Monday, 1 May at 6.00pm, hence my discussion of Paul Gauguin today. ‘Why are they calling it After Impressionism rather than Post-Impressionism?’ you might ask – well, that’s one of the things we will cover on Monday, but basically Post-Modernism is a term that was invented in 1910 by Roger Fry as a title for an exhibition that included artists whose ideas differed from those of the Impressionists, but who didn’t necessarily have a lot in common. Since its first use the term has become somewhat limited in scope, referring mainly to artists who lived or worked in France, but excluding much else. The curators want to give a far broader sense of the rich variety of art in the years after the last Impressionist Exhibition of 1886 and up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It’s a tall order, and the scope of the exhibition is quite breath-taking as a result. But I shall limit myself to my usual ‘hour’ (i.e., 75 minutes). In the following weeks we will see Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian, The Rossettis, and, already on sale, The ‘Other’ Vermeers on 5 June – but details of all of these are on the diary, of course.

The curators of After Impressionism focus on three ‘Pivotal Figures’ who played ‘a central role in forging avant-garde art in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century’. One of them was Paul Gauguin. This particular painting is a good example of what was so new about art ‘after Impressionism’. For a start, the colour is striking – strident even – with a vivid, virulent red taking up much of the canvas. I was talking last week about the liberation of the brushstroke from its descriptive function, and in Gauguin we see that colour, too, is no longer describing visual appearance. This is neither red floor nor red sky – indeed, it is hard to specify where one stops and the other begins. Instead of describing, the colour being used for its visual impact and emotive force. People are gathered in the foreground and along the left-hand side of the image, a tree cuts diagonally across the surface, and in the top right we see Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, the subtitle of the painting.

The story comes from Genesis Chapter 32. The full story is told from verses 22-32, but I’m just giving you the central section:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

You’ll notice that it doesn’t say ‘Angel’ anywhere, but there is one mentioned in Hosea 12:3-5, which refers to the same episode. However, this is not the subject of the painting.

The title (rather than the subtitle) of the painting is Vision of the Sermon: this is not a religious painting, but a painting of a religious experience. The vision is being experienced by the people in the foreground, a group of Breton women and their priest, who is on the far right. He has preached a sermon on this text so vividly that the scene has come to life before them. It could almost be a metaphor for the creative act: the priest has, through his words, brought the episode to life to the extent that the congregation believe they can see it. Gauguin has painted it – and there it is, before our eyes.

The priest frames the image at the right: his face looking down and towards our left stops our attention from straying beyond the picture frame. The women next to him look in, and, like Eugène Manet last week, are acting as repoussoirs, pushing our eyes back towards the vision. Gauguin only shows their shoulders and the very tops of their backs, as if we are there with them, pushing in closer to get a better view. The woman on the left of this detail looks to our right, again directing our attention towards Jacob and the Angel: she and the priest act like a pair of brackets for this small section of the congregation. However, they are cut off from the vision by the tree growing at a diagonal, which seems perfectly placed to frame the woman’s profile. We can tell that Jacob and the Angel are further away because they are smaller, but apart from that we cannot see how far – the unmodulated red gives no sense of traditional perspective. Indeed, it is flat on the surface of the painting.

The left flank of the painting is also framed by the gathered congregation, huddled together nearer to the foreground group, and kneeling on the ground in the top left corner. There is also a cow whose position is impossible to define, but it speaks of the bucolic nature of the scene. Gauguin had tired of the sophistication of Parisian life, just as the Impressionists had earlier tired of the artificial requirements of the official Academy. He headed out to visit an artists’ colony in Pont-Aven, in Brittany: he was looking for somewhere which had not reached the same levels of industrialisation as the French capital. He wanted something innocent, and unsophisticated, where people were living a far more down-to-earth lifestyle. A romantic view of the peasant life, perhaps, and not a little condescending. And if it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for – well, you’d never know that from the painting, in which traditional costumes are on show as if they were worn every day. It was in Pont-Aven that he got to know Émile Bernard, who many consider to be the true originator of the style that Gauguin is using here. Its aims would be summed up best by Maurice Denis in 1890, two years after today’s painting was completed:

‘It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’

We are seeing what now seems like the implacable movement of painting towards abstraction, where the elements of colour, line and form stand for themselves rather than representing aspects of the world we see and live in, those things that all artists since the Renaissance had sought to emulate. Gauguin even said that his paintings were ‘abstract’, but he was not using the word in the same way that we do now, meaning art with no visual reference to objects in the visible world. This particular style was called Synthetism, as the artists wanted to synthesize three things: what something looked like, what the artist felt about it, and the purely aesthetic concerns of colour, line and form (as in the statement quoted above).

Common to the style are strong, bold outlines filled by plane areas of colour. In this example the outlines are perhaps not as bold as in others – but they can be seen clearly around the headdress of the woman on the right in this detail, and they also define the headdress and profile of the woman to her left. There is a limited amount of three-dimensional modelling in the face of the woman on the left, but the red background is implacably flat. The effect is sometimes referred to as cloisonnism, as in cloisonné enamel, in which the cloisons (or ‘compartments’) of single-coloured enamel are separated by gold borders. It is not dissimilar to the appearance of stained-glass windows, in which the coloured glass is separated by black leading.

Jacob and the Angel are seen as if in a compartment of their own, cut off by the tree to the left and the branches and leaves at the top. The brilliant yellow wings and rich blue robe stand out against the red background, making the angel appear other-worldly. The red, both hot and exciting, could easily represent his power, and the energy of the struggle. Jacob and the Angel appear clearly before us, and yet, however much we see them, Gauguin himself was entirely convinced that they were not there.  In a letter to Vincent van Gogh, whom he had met in Paris in November 1887, he said, ‘For me the landscape and the fight only exist in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon.

Art has truly been stood on its head. No longer are artists painting what they see, or what they imagine one could see, thus making the natural world visible, however tempered its appearance might be by their own feelings. Instead, they are finding visual equivalents for what they feel or think, things which do not, and never did exist in the world around us. The choice of colour, line and form represents the artist’s inner world, rather than representing the shared visual world. As a result, the way a work of art is made becomes one of the things that it is about: how paint is applied, and which paints are used, for example, become some of the ‘subjects’ of art.

There is some modelling of form here, yes, but on the whole the whites, blacks, browns – and of course, the red – constitute flat planes defined by lines which, although inflected, are also two-dimensional patterns on the canvas. Where did these ideas come from? Well, one of the major sources was Japan.

On the right is Utagawa Hiroshige’s, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo, printed in 1857. This is a photograph of a print the Art Institute of Chicago, but there is another version in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, which was owned, and copied, by Vincent van Gogh himself. Many artists were influenced by Japanese prints: Monet and Van Gogh, yes, but also Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, not to mention the other Synthetists. I don’t know whether Gauguin had seen this particular print before he painted Vision of the Sermon, but if not, there are several, if not many others, in which a dark tree cuts diagonally across the foreground. It is clearly a red sky in the Hiroshige, and it is distinguished from the ground, which is green, whereas for Gauguin there is no distinction. Western European Art was heading forward at a remarkable rate, and these developments constitute what was probably the biggest change in outlook since the Renaissance. In order to innovate they were not looking back, but nor were they necessarily looking forward. Instead, they were looking elsewhere, drawing on art from the rest of the world to find new ways to paint. As so often, they did not fully understand what they were looking at: they liked elements of the forms they saw, the use of line and colour, without having any real sense of what the art meant for the society which was producing it. But it gave them ideas which fuelled their vision of what art should be – and, whatever else we might think about him, Gauguin truly was one of art’s great visionaries.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “193 – Visionary

    1. Hi Anne,
      I’ve removed the BTinternet address, and saw that you’ve added the new one… so all should be working now!
      Thanks for your continued interest,
      and best wishes,


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