PONT-AVEN (School of)
Pont-Aven is a picturesque little town in Brittany, frequented since 1873 by artists drawn there both by the archaic charm of the country and the celebrated inn of Marie-Jeanne Gloanec. It won fame through Gauguin's visits and gave its name to the school of painting created around him, the principles of which were revealed to him in Brittany. 'When my clogs strike this granite ground', he used to my, 'I hear the low, dull, powerful sound that I seek in painting.' However, his first lonely stay, from June to November 1886, was merely an introduction without immediate importance. In Concameau, in August, his friend Schuffenecker met a young painter and poet of eighteen, Émile Bernard ( 1868-1941), precocious, open, cultivated, full of mystical ardour and passion for the country that he explored on foot in every direction. Schuffenecker introduced him to Gauguin; but the latter's rather cold reception cut the meeting short. Gauguin's second stay in Pont-Aven, from June to October 1888, was to be decisive. He took lodgings at the Gloanec bonding-house, where he was immediately recognized as leader. Around him, in the small room of the inn, an increasing number of disciples drawn by his personality and new ideas grouped themselves: the faithful Charles Laval ( 1962-1894), his companion on the trip to Martinique the preceding year; Henri de Chamaillard, Moret, Maufra, Jourdan, Grouchi-Taylor, Sylvain Depeige; the Swiss Cuno Amiet; the American O'Connor, and others. The big room was reserved for students at the Beaux-Arts and orthodox painters, among whom a certain G. de Maupassant, supposed to be the father of the writer, was the most hostile to the innovators. Early in August, Émile Bernard, this time cordially greeted by Gauguin, with whom he was to have fruitful exchanges and whose technical evolution he advanced, arrived from Saint-Brieuc with his sister Madeleine, who was to become the 'mystic muse' of Pont-Aven. Under the stimulus of Bernard, Gauguin executed The Vision after the Sermon, which marked the beginning of his new manner, characterized by Cloisonnism and Synthesism. Cloisonnism (inspired by cloisonné enamels) consisted in surrounding vast plain surfaces of pure colour, juxtaposed without transition, with sinuous, heavy arabesques. The new use of pure colour -- to which, he said, everything had to be sacrified -- without the nuances of light peculiar to the Impressionists, led to glorification of the decorative plane surface, the lifting of the horizon, and the suppression of naturalistic perspective and space. Thus it is that in this picture the meadow, daringly rendered in red, invades the entire sky, while the figures stand out flatly like Chinese silhouettes.
Synthesism was the direct consequence of this process of simplification and resulted from the need to work no longer from the subject but from memory, no longer 'before the thing' but 'entertaining it in the imagination', which eliminates details and retains only the essential form, the 'idea'. Synthesism and Cloisonnism constituted the aesthetic framework of Symbolism in painting. Émile Bernard, with great acrimony, was to claim credit later for inspiring the movement; but this periodically revived quarrel is absurd, for if Bernard seems indeed to have been the precursor for certain technical processes he evolved together with Anquetin as early as 1887 -- processes which were, anyway, in the air (because of the influence of Japanese prints, stained glass, folk images, primitive art) -Gauguin's genius alone was able to draw masterpieces and an original vision from these techniques. At the end of September Sérusier, then a pupil at the Académie Julian, staying at PontAven among traditional painters, was introduced to Gauguin through Bernard and painted under his direction the famous landscape of the Bois d'Amour, a small board covered with 'pure colours assembled in a certain order', which he brought back triumphantly to his comrades, the future Nabis, as the 'talisman' of the new doctrine. This was for them a decisive revelation, reinforced by the first public show of the PontAven Group, held early in 1889 at the Café Volpini in the Place du Champ-de-Mars in Paris on the grounds of the Universal Exhibition: it bore the name 'Exhibition of Painting of the Impressionist and Synthesist Group' and comprised, together with seventeen canvases by Gauguin and twenty-three by Bernard, works of Laval, Anquetin, Schuffenecker, Fauché, G. Daniel, L. Roy, all framed with white laths that made a sensation.
In the meantime, Gauguin stayed two months with Van Gogh at Aries, a visit that was tragically interrupted by the drama of the amputated ear. In April 1889 he returned to Pont-Aven, but soon exasperated by the throng of painters and tourists, he moved to a neighbouring and quieter hamlet, Le Pouldu, in October, and took lodgings in an isolated seaside inn kept by Mile Marie Henry, called 'Marie the Doll'. He stayed there from October 2nd, 1889, to November 7th, 1890, with the Dutchman Meyer de Haan, his admirer, patron and most gifted disciple. Charles Filiger, another person of unusual temperament, joined him in July 1890. Laval, Sérusier and Seguin spent part of the summer there in shifts. Moret, Maufra, de Chamaillard and Jourdan, who remained faithful to Pont-Aven, came often as neighbours. The small inn was entirely decorated, from window-panes to ceiling, with paintings, frescoes, drawings, ceramics, lithographs and sculptures and adorned with inscriptions like Honni soit qui mal y pense or I Like Onions Fried in Oil. The front door was ornamented with the famous canvas jokingly imitated from Courbet, Bonjour, M. Gauguin, and on the communal tobacco jar one could read the rallying cry Long Live Synthesis! It was in this 'retreat' of Le Pouldu that Gauguin, now master of his style, had his longest, happiest and most fruitful stay in Brittany, surrounded by his most fervent disciples; and had he not, as can be seen, taken with some irony his role as leader of the group, it would no doubt be more correct to speak of a School of Le Pouldu rather than of Pont-Aven.
While 'the School of Pont-Aven', according to Maurice Denis, 'stirred up as many ideas as that of Fontainebleau', and renewed the aesthetic current of the end of the century, the gathering of the artists who formed it was due only to the prestige of Gauguin and hardly survived his departure. Only Charles Filiger and Armand Sequin, whom Gauguin was to encounter again during his final stay at Pont-Aven in April to December 1894, between his two trips to Tahiti, remained obstinately faithful to the Breton land and to the principles of Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu.
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