modernism in art

late impressionism through surrealism


readings day 1 (we'll cover Symbolism over 2 days, so I've divided the readings up approximately)

• SH essay, The Nabis and Symbolism

• SH video, Fernand Khnopff, I Lock my Door Upon Myself

• SH video, Franz von Stuck, The Sin

• SH essay, The Pont-Aven School and Synthetism

readings day 2

• SH essay, Primitivism and modern art

• SH video, Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon

• SH essay, Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching

• selections from Gauguin’s letters (primary source)

key terms and concepts: Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, symbol, synthetism, 'mimetic' versus 'expressive' use of color, primitivism

Although Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism are frequently grouped together under the name 'Post-Impressionism,' they are in many ways total opposites. How is Symbolism different from Neo-Impressionism in terms of overall intent and values? Think about the following quotes by 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

subject matter -- How does the subject matter of the works below differ from that preferred by tne Neo-Impressionists? How does it demonstrate the Symbolists' quest for something 'deeper' and less 'superficial' than (Neo-)Impressionism? How did the Symbolists (and, interestingly, contemporary psychologists such as Freud) validate myths as something other than the errors of an ignorant, pre-scientific age? How do the artists use even real things (such as flowers or panthers) as symbols, rather than real objects?

form/style -- As can be seen below, the Symbolists practiced a broad range of styles. How did those who practiced a fairly traditional naturalistic style (such as Moreau and Khnopff) still enhance the expressive or decorative (formalist) qualities of their works? Why did the more 'modern' Symbolists such as the Nabis and the Pont-Aven School tend to paint in broad, flat areas of nearly unmodulated color (a style often called synthetism or cloisonnism)? How is their use of color expressive, to convey feelings, rather than mimetic, to imitate the way things look?

What is primitivism? Why did artists such as Gauguin reject modernity (cities, technology, science) and instead embrace of the values of earlier times and non-Western, non-industrialized peoples? 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?

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 who are having these faith-based experiences in Gauguin's works?

Gustave Moreau, Salome dancing before Herod, Symbolism, 1876

Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, Symbolism (Pont-Aven School), 1888

Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door Upon Myself, Symbolism, 1891

Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria (We Hail Thee, Mary), Symbolism, 1891-92

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