In the late 1880s, Paul Gauguin and a group of other artists put Pont-Aven on the map of art history. Working in that small Brittany town, they moved art an essential step beyond impressionism and toward the art of the 20th century.
That step can be seen through the exhibit, "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven," opening today at the Walters Art Gallery and running through Jan. 15.
But, up front, two points need to be made:
First, this exhibit is not what museum-goers could easily be led to think from its billing.
And second, it's an instructive, beautiful and rewarding show anyway.
When a show's advertising screams "GAUGUIN," and whispers "and the School of Pont-Aven," it cannot help but leave the impression that it's composed mostly of works by Gauguin and secondarily of works by others. In fact, of the more than 100 objects here, 16 are by Gauguin, including ninepaintings. More than four-fifths of the show's works are by other artists, particularly Emile Bernard and Paul Serusier.
The reason for the imbalance is that the show is drawn almost entirely from the holdings of a major but little-known Swiss-based collector named Samuel Josefowitz. (Mr. Josefowitz's name is not mentioned in the show. He had requested anonymity, but was identified by the New York Times after the show opened in August in Indianapolis, the first stop of its American tour.)
As a private collection, therefore, the show is naturally not comprehensive -- especially in terms of Gauguin's works, which are distributed in museums all over the world. Even so, it succeeds in clearly demonstrating the crucial role of the artists at Pont-Aven -- especially Gauguin, Bernard and Serusier -- at a pivotal moment in the history of art.
Gauguin went to Pont-Aven partly for what it was -- an artists' colony -- and partly for what it wasn't -- Paris. A former stockbroker who had taken up art as a sideline in the 1870s, he had abandoned his job to pursue art single-mindedly in 1883.
"Gauguin did his best work outside of Paris," says art historian Richard Brettell, who contributed an illuminating essay to the show's catalog. "Because of a combination of insecurity and arrogance, he couldn't compete in a broad arena. He needed a narrow arena with worshipers and isolation."
Pont-Aven was right for him, Brettell says, "because of the interaction with other artists, because of the otherness and exoticism of the place . . . and because he could effectively become the king, the center of his world there and control it. Before this, he had been a perpetual student, an amateur. Here he could become the master."
During his first stay there in 1886, Gauguin still painted under the influence of Pissarro, in an essentially impressionist fashion, as shown by his earliest canvases here, including "Thatched Cottages in the Derout-Lollichon field, Pont-Aven."
It was during his next stay in Pont-Aven, in 1888, when major changes occurred for Gauguin and other artists trying to break away from impressionism. They believed impressionists described optical reality with paint, says Brettell. "That was a flaw in their concept of impressionism -- it was not sheerly optical."
But this narrow view of impressionism led to the development of an opposite theory, what Brettell calls "the mind interacting with nature, not the eye and the natural world."
To distance themselves from impressionism, some Pont-Aven artists turned to such sources as Japanese art, Breton folk art and medieval art. Influenced partly by Japanese art, Gauguin in the early summer of 1888 completed "Boys Wrestling," in which the horizon has been eliminated and the viewer looks almost straight down on the two boys. The vast majority of the background is an irregular quadrangle of green grass.
"He had begun to work in an anti-naturalistic vein by simplifying the composition into broad patterns of color, a feature associated with Japanese woodblock prints -- eliminating traditional perspective, and distorting the size of the children's feet for expressive purposes," states Walters associate director William R. Johnston, curator of the exhibit in Baltimore.
Also in Pont-Aven that summer was the younger artist Emile Bernard, who with others had been developing a style of art called cloisonnism. So named because it resembled cloisonne enamels, as well as stained-glass windows, it involved the use of areas of flat color outlined with dark lines. A number of Bernard canvases here show this development, including his "The Buckwheat Harvest" (1888) with its strongly outlined reds, yellows and whites.
Gauguin and Bernard, with Serusier as Gauguin's willing student, took their developments a step further. In an effort to distill the essentials of a scene, their work became more two-dimensional and abstract, as in Bernard's paintings "Bretonnerie" and "Breton Women on a Wall" (both 1892).
"Their compositions were organized in what they considered decorative surface arrangements," writes Brettell, "and their colors had as much to do with imagination as with observation."
In effect, their works asserted that an artist can take outside reality and change it, which influenced many of the main developments of 20th-century art -- from expressionism's color exaggerations, to cubism's reinterpretation of form, to non-representational art.
The best-known artists of the Pont-Aven group may be French, but Brettell asserts that one of the reasons for the group's wide-ranging influence was its internationalism. There were artists from Ireland, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Switzerland and elsewhere. The Swiss artist Cuno Amiet provided a direct link between Pont-Aven and the German expressionists, and Robert Bevan took postimpressionist ideas back to Britain.
Gauguin's time at Pont-Aven not only influenced the future art of others -- it influenced his own as well.
"The painting, wood-carving, print-making and drawing of Gauguin in Tahiti, Paris and the Marquesas would have been impossible without his Pont-Aven experience," writes Brettell. "His commitment to art as ultimate decoration, his sense that the modern artist must work in all media, his fanatical devotion to personal and artistic individuality, his realization of the importance of indigenous cultures and literatures, his belief in the liberation of color from appearances, and his stubborn independence from 'metropolitan' or Parisian standards -- all these essential aspects of his career have their roots in Pont-Aven."
We would be better able to judge the Gauguin of Pont-Aven if this show contained such essential works of the period as "The Vision after the Sermon" (1888) and "Yellow Christ" (1889). What we get from the Gauguin works here are hints of some of the developments in his art -- for instance, the response to indigenous cultures evidenced by both the young girl and the Peruvian pot in "Young Brittany Girl" (1889), or the decorative use of color in "In the Waves" (1889).
Bernard, Serusier and Maurice Denis are among the artists well-represented in this show. It also contains impressive paintings by artists whose names are less well-known: Among others, Jacob Meyer de Haan's "Maternity" (1889), Armand Seguin's "Two Thatched Cottages" (about 1893-1894) and Roderick O'Conor's "Breton Girl" (about 1903). The O'Conor was borrowed for the Baltimore showing from the collection of Walters board chairman emeritus Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. and Diana E. Murnaghan.
This is not the ideal Pont-Aven show, in which Gauguin would surely be more thoroughly represented. But it illuminates an important moment in the history of modern art, and does so with many works of art that are a pleasure to see.
Show's success expected
The Walters expects the exhibit to draw between 90,000 and 100,000 people during its two-month stay, which would make it the second-largest show in the Walters' history behind the 1993 exhibit of impressionist painter Alfred Sisley.
That show drew 120,000 people during its three-month run.
Advance ticket sales for "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven" totaled about 3,500 earlier this week, but gallery officials expect a surge now that the show is open.
For the show, the gallery is only selling timed tickets, allowing admission each half-hour.
"We have budgeted 200 tickets every half-hour, so if there's a wait to get into the show it won't be long, and you can visit the gallery or go get something to eat and come back," says Howard White, Walters Art Gallery director of public relations and marketing.
After it closes in Baltimore -- the only East Coast venue for the show -- it moves to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada (Feb. 11-April 9, 1995), then the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn. (May 6-June 2, 1995) and the San Diego Museum of Art in San Diego, Calif. (July 29-Sept. 24, 1995).
During the show's run, the exhibition space and the Centre Street lobby will be open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. The rest of the gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Gauguin exhibit will be open Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and New Year's day; the gallery will not.
WHAT: "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven"
Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Jan. 15
Admission: By timed ticket only; $7 adults, $3 Walters members, seniors ($7 on weekends), $5 students, free to children under 12. Includes admission to the museum.
Call: TicketMaster (with service charge), (410) 481-SEAT; Gauguin information line, (410) 576-2417; Walters general number (410) 547-9000.