Paul Gauguin and the Russian Avant-Garde
The works of Gauguin and the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th Century have a great deal in common, but until a recent exhibit, few people had paid attention to the myriad links between the two. In this article, we sum up some of those connections, and provide links to images of the Gauguin works that made their way to Russia in the heady years before the Revolution.
Best remembered for his post-impressionist paintings of idyllic Tahitian village scenes, Paul Gauguin is one of the best-known painters to emerge from 19th Century France. His style, utilizing wide areas of flat color to depict scenes of primitivist, religious, and symbolic imagery has been often imitated but never duplicated, and paved the way for the later experiments of the Fauves and Expressionists.
Raised between France and Peru, Gauguin attempted to settle into a life as a stockbroker in Paris after the fall of the Second Empire. After 15 years as a stockbroker and several bouts of severe depression, he felt the need to escape his stuffy, hypocritical bourgeois life and set off to paint and explore the world.
At the same time he was pursuing his career in finance, Gauguin was practicing painting as a hobby. His first major show came in 1881, when he was still painting in the dominant impressionist mode of the time. After spending extensive time in remote areas of Northern France and the Caribbean, he developed what has become his signature style influenced by folk painting, Japanese prints, and Medieval art. The critic Édouard Dujardin referred to this as cloissonisme, a reference to the cloissoné style of enamel decoration popular during the Middle Ages. Abandoning the formal experiment of impressionism, Gauguin believed that this new cloissonisme style would reinvigorate European art with a sense of the symbolic and mythic that it had lost. Much like the French symbolist poets working at the same time, he began pointing the arts down the path that would eventually lead to surrealism and expressionism.
In the late 1880′s, after a falling out with his wife and family, he abandoned life in the urban centers for Brittany, in the remote French northwest. There, he began to paint religious and folk scenes, depicting the still in many ways Medieval lives of the inhabitants. He shortly thereafter went further afield, to Martinique and Panama, before settling in the South Pacific. There, he found the subjects he became best known for: jungles, scenes of Polynesian life, and totemic images.
By the early 20th Century, years of alcoholism and depression were taking their toll on Gauguin. He became sexually involved with numerous young Polynesian girls, and ran afoul of the local government. He died of syphilis at age 54 in 1903, broke and far from home.
- The complete works of Paul Gauguin can be found here. In addition to images, you’ll find a more extensive biography.
- This article on the Art Wolf reflects on Gauguin’s tropical works. Issues of the tropical, colonialism, and the mythic are discussed.
- Amelia Hill writes this article in the Guardian about Gauguin’s relationship to Tahiti. Hill writes about Gauguin’s abusive relationships and imperialist attitude in regards to the natives.
- The official website of the Gauguin Cultural Center in the Marquesas Islands.
At the same time in Russia, a new wave of artists began embracing the avant garde. The nation in the early 20th Century was going through upheavals as the senile reign of the czars began faltering before its eventual collapse with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Influenced by current experiments in the arts in France and Germany, Russian artists abandoned the traditions of Slavic realism and courtly romanticism in favor of a more experimental, conceptual idiom.
One of the first Russian avant-gardes was the symbolist movement. Originally led by authors like Aleksandr Blok, Valery Bryusov, Andrei Bely and Fyodor Sologub, it quickly spread to all the arts, with the theater of Anton Chekhov and the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky becoming immensely popular in the West as well as in Russia. Influenced by French symbolism, they preferred myth to realism, and poetry to rationalism, and radical creativity as a mode of being.
The symbolist mode remained dominant until the years leading up to World War I, when the crack-up of the Russian Empire looked inevitable. The neo-primitivists, led by Aleksandr Shevchenko, looked to the past, and were attracted to Russian folk art, especially the Byzantine icons that decorated the nation’s rural churches. Marc Chagall painted the shtetl scenes of his youth, and celebrated the rural Jewish culture of the steppes. At the same time, Igor Stravinsky effortlessly fused the mythic and the primitive with the most experimental forms of music, composing the Rite of Spring, an intentionally “pagan” piece of music so bizarre it led to riots at its debut in 1913.
Where the symbolists looked back, the Russian futurists looked forward. Enthralled by the machinery and dynamism of modern life, the futurists violently rejected Russia’s past. Their anarchic approach even eschewed the influence of the Italian futurists; when the “father of futurism” Filippo Marinetti arrived in Moscow, he found himself violently confronted by futurist artists. Their embrace of the future led many to become active participants in the Revolution. Vladimir Mayakovsky became one of the critical proponents of communism among the Russian art scene.
These two forms of art, one favoring the past, one favoring the present, reached a sort of fusion with the suprematist and constructivist schools. While exceptionally modern in their form– flat color fields and geometric figures, the content is remarkably symbolist, expressing universal symbolic value rather than trying to depict realistic scenes. Artists like Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin struck a chord with the new Soviet leadership, favoring this new “art of ideas” over the stuffy paintings of the Czarist era. Meanwhile, the revolutionary filmmaker Dziga Vertov applied a constructivist approach to the making of cinema, and his paeans to the Russian Revolution still stand out as masterpieces of formal film technique.
- An article on Russian symbolism in Passport, a Russia-based magazine.
- This article, while brief, gives a great overview of the Russian futurist movement.
- A history of the constructivist movement, with links to some of the major works.
- Some of the major works of the Russian suprematist movement, with a brief history of suprematism.
The Link Between the Two
You’ll notice, in the above two sections, many parallels between Gauguin and the Russian avant-garde movements. The two share a common love of the symbolic and the mythic, an embrace of folk styles, and a heavy use of color fields instead of the nuanced light effects of the impressionists. The reader might think that both Gauguin and the Russian avant-garde simultaneously felt a tiredness with the previous modes of artistic expression. But the connection is deeper.
The collector Sergei Shchukin brought the works of the French avant-garde to Russia. An avid collector of Gauguin as well as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and the young Pablo Picasso, Shchukin squandered his fortune on the radical paintings of France. In 1918, his collection was seized by the state and his home was turned into a museum, where these works would influence Russian artists for generations to come.
- The Night Café in Arles, 1888
- Still Life with Fruits, 1888
- The Flowers of France, 1891
- The Conversation, 1891
- Landscape with Peacocks, 1892
- Still Life with Vairumati, 1892
- Are You Jealous?, 1892
- Woman with a Fruit, 1893
- Sweet Dreams, 1894
- Tahitian Festival, 1896
- The Queen, 1896
- Nativity, 1896
- Tahitian in a Room, 1896
- Motherhood, 1899
- Picking Fruit, 1899
- Tahitian Landscape, 1899
- The Ford, 1901
- Sunflowers, 1901
- Still Life with Parrot, 1902
- The Brittany Brothers, 1889
- The Big Night, 1893
- She Thinks of Ghosts, 1893
- Beautiful Land, 1894
- Gratitude, 1894
- Tahitian Children, 1895
- Divinity, 1899
Image source: Wikimedia Commons