modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

gauguin & symbolism


people, terms, and concepts: Post-Impressionism, synthetism/cloisonnism, mimetic versus expressive use of color, primitivism  

additional reading: selections from Gauguin’s letters

Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism are frequently grouped together under the name Post-Impressionism, but in many ways the two movements are direct opposites in subject matter, style, and in general goals, as can be seen in the following quotes from the leading critic of Symbolism, Albert Aurier, and the leading artist, Paul Gauguin:

“The word 'Impressionism,' whether we like it or not, suggests a whole aesthetic program founded on sensation.  Impressionism is and can only be a variety of realism ... it is the translation of the instantaneous sensation  ... an exclusively sensorial impression, with nothing deeper.” [Aurier, “Symbolism in Painting,” 1891]

“[The Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists] heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centers of thought, so falling into merely scientific reasoning ... When they speak of their art, what is it? A purely superficial art, full of affectations and purely material. There is no thought there.” [Gauguin, from “Diverses choses,” 1896-97]

The goal of the Symbolists was thus to return art to ‘deeper’ content than the passing appearances of things.  The differences in their choices of subject-matter and style follow from that general distinction:

subject matter -- The Symbolists often chose to paint subjects that literally are not objectively visible, such as mythological stories and spiritual ‘visions’.  How does this exemplify their desire to return art to “deeper” significance?  How did the Symbolists (and, interestingly, contemporary psychologists such as Freud) validate myths as something other than errors of an ignorant, pre-scientific age?

form/style -- The Symbolists (especially The Nabis and the Pont-Aven School) opposed the Impressionists’ search for subtle nuances of color and light, choosing instead to render objects in broad, flat areas of nearly unmodulated color (a style often called synthetism or cloisonnism).  They also tended to use color expressively, to convey feelings, rather than mimetically, to imitate the way things look.

Another key characteristic of Symbolism is its thoroughgoing rejection of modernity (cities, technology, science), and its embrace instead of the values of earlier times and non-Western, non-industrialized peoples--a phenomenon called primitivism that as we shall see recurs throughout Modernist art.  What were Symbolists such as Gauguin seeking among the rural French peasants of Brittany and the natives of the South Sea island of Tahiti?  How is Gauguin’s style just as ‘primitivist’ as his subject matter, and why?  And finally, what are the ironies of Gauguin’s primitivism?  Is it accurate to the cultures he was depicting?  (How not? Why not?)  Why is it always women having these faith-based experiences?

Gustave Moreau, Apparition (Salomé with the head of John the Baptist), Symbolism, 1876

Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, Symbolism, 1888

Sérusier, The Talisman, Symbolism, 1888

Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria, Symbolism, 1891-92

Redon, The Chariot of Apollo, Symbolism, 1905-14