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Paul Gaugin’s Paintings of the Breton Period

The art of the late nineteenth century was mainly characterized by frequent attempts of artist to escape from academic traditions that accepted only realistic paintings, made according to pre-established set of rules. Consequently, this period witnessed the creation of a variety of different movements, such as Dadaism, Fauvism, Primitivism, and others. One of major similarities between these movements was the fact that their representatives often used colors in a rather non-naturalistic manner. This tendency became evident in the works of many painters, but probably the most expressive and creative realization of this method can be found in Gauguin’s oeuvre. This paper is aimed at analysis of three paintings by Gauguin, belonging to so-called Breton period of 1886-1891, namely, Wrestling Boys (1888), Vision after the Sermon (1888), and Negreries Martinique (1890). These paintings suggest that the use of non-naturalistic colors in picturing a human body was a way to represent a new approach to identity construction, human sexuality, and racial issues.

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The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by a large variety of important discoveries in the spheres of human psychology, as well as by intensification of many social issues regarding human identity. Scientists, philosophers, and social leaders realized the necessity of new approaches towards the construction of human identity, as the old ones could not possibly satisfy the changing world any longer. These tendencies were thoroughly reflected in different movements of avant-garde art, which introduced a number of various innovations, with a new color theory being among most significant ones. Artists used non-naturalistic colors to portray different objects, but primarily a human body. They completely rejected realism that favored subtle tones and very smooth transitions between colors and shades. Paul Gauguin was one of the painters who were widely recognized for their innovative and experimental use of colors. This approach became evident in his paintings during the Breton period of 1886-1891 and was later intensified when he moved to Tahiti. With regard to increasing simplification of a subject matter, Gauguin started paying more attention to psychological aspects. He became more interested in showing not the way a person looks in reality, but how he or she is seen by others. In some cases Gauguin also managed to combine this perspective with some elements of self-evaluation, for example, in his self-portraits of this period. To show his new understanding of human identity, he searched for new methods of artistic, expression including the usage of rather unusual colors. He could use green for a person’s nose, or dense blue for shadows. All these innovations were supposed to show the true nature of depicted people, eliminating all stereotypes imposed by the society.

One of his most famous works of the Breton period, Wrestling Boys (1888), shows how boys are fighting at the edge of the river. Gauguin describes this painting in the following way, “Two kids, in blue and in vermillion shorts. A green lawn (pure veronese green modulated to chrome yellow)… a cascade of water boiling and white, pink and rainbow colored… At the bottom a white spot, a black hat and a blue blouse.” It is evident how the artist is obsessed by the correct choice of colors. According to Gauguin, the painting forms the intended impression only when the color scheme is properly selected. The choice of colors is not radical at this painting, as Gauguin only begins his pursuit in this sphere, but it is already evident how his main approaches will develop later. He uses soft green for the face of the boy in vermillion shorts and the left arm of the other boy. The skin of the boy who is going out of the water looks much more yellow than it should be in reality. The motif of wrestling figures appears in many paintings of this period, thus signifying Gauguin’s interest in confrontation that arises between people in the process of their identity formation. These boys are rather young, so they have only stepped onto this path, but by adding some non-naturalistic colors Gauguin shows that these boys are likely to grow different people from their parents, as they will live in an absolutely different world.

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The idea of using intense yellow colors for a human body that was seen in Wrestling Boys is shown from a different angle in Vision after the Sermon . This work is often considered to be one of most important symbolist paintings of Paul Gauguin. In this work of art he also employed many cloisonnism principles, namely, division of canvas into large areas of even colors, usage of black contours as separating lines, and others. The area where Jacob is wrestling with the angel is separated from the rest of the painting with a heavy dark log that also supports cloisonnism treatment of color schemes. The angel’s wings are bright yellow. It is believed that after his cooperation with Van Gogh Gauguin, under the influence of this painter, began to strongly associate yellow with spirituality. Gauguin introduces this biblical scene into the nineteenth century environment and rejects almost all traditional iconography of this religious subject. By simplifying the composition, making the image look more two-dimensional, and choosing bright plain colors Gauguin urges the viewer to reflect upon faith in the modern society. He shows the simplicity of Breton life and opposes it to the new busy world that is losing its morality. The colors chosen for bodies of women, wings of the angel, and surrounding environment are supposed to offer a new perspective on most important aspects of human identity – faith and spirituality.

The collage Negreries Martinique is an impressive and thought-provoking illustration of how Gauguin tried to introduce new approaches in treating the concept of human ethnicity. It features three African or mixed race women. One is sitting with her back turned to the viewer, and one can clearly see that her skin is covered with scars. Behind her, there are two women of the same ethnicity, but Gauguin painted their faces in blue color in contrast to the first woman, whose skin is, typically for the race, dark brown. Some biographers of Gauguin argue that at the time when this collage was made, the artist had already decided to move to some exotic locale in order to enjoy “simple life” and escape from his financial problems. He felt very sympathetic towards the people who lived in such places and condemned aggressive exploitation of these ethnic groups. In this painting, by using depressive blue for the faces of two women, he tried to convey the depth of their despair and sadness. However, at the same time, these women do not seem ready to fight for their rights. Therefore, as Gauguin suggests, it is necessary to consider ethnicity issues from a new angle, as the way they were regarded was not appropriate in terms of human dignity.

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To conclude, Gauguin non-naturalistic colors in representation of a human body were a means of showing that the society should look for new perspectives in treating such notions as human identity and the role of individuality. He used unexpected color schemes in depicting people to highlight that in the world that has significantly changed at the end of the nineteenth century traditional realism would not be able to show new approaches to personality, ethnicity, or faith. These non-naturalistic colors that can be seen in Wrestling Boys, Vision after the Sermon, and Negreries Martinique prove that Gauguin was one of pioneers of avant-garde art that tried to find artistic methods of representing new human identity.