Paul Gauguin was a French artist during the later part of the 19th century who was in the forefront of the modernism art movement that was against the aspects of Impressionism that involved “the study of appearances” (naturalism). Instead Gauguin was interested in imagery that represented the deeper ideas and feelings, even the artistic impulses within the artist’s psyche (Wood p. 174). The synthesis of feelings and observation are represented through abstraction of the lines, shapes, colors, and spaces within the imagery (Stokstad p. 997).
Gauguin’s position as an avant-garde artist can be seen in his oil painting “The Yellow Christ” done in 1889. To see how he fit in with the definition of an avant-garde artist, we will use the art historian’s, Griselda Pollock, formula, or definition, of reference, deference, and difference.
Reference refers to the artist’s awareness of what’s happening in the art world, such as artistic traditions and conventions. Gauguin references several style of paintings in his work of “The Yellow Christ”. The landscape scenery in his painting references the tradition of landscape painting and the painting of rural scenes, which became popular with Netherlands artists such as Peiter Bruegel the Elder during the sixteenth century. The golden hills are even reminiscent of his painting “The Harvesters”. The imagery of Christ on the cross is a very traditional religious imagery. His depiction of Christ on the cross in an outdoor landscape, the composed figure of Christ and of the quiet composure of the mourners, are similar in characteristics to Perugino’s fifteenth century painting “Crucifixion with Saints” (image Stokstad p. 622). Even Perugino’s painting shows some flatness to the land, which is taken even further by Gauguin in his landscape with his solid patches of color.
Pollock is looking for deference in the works of avant-garde artists. Does the artist defer, or give reverence and respect, to the latest and most radical developments or to the work of another artist, especially in terms of technique? Gauguin shows deference to the Impressionists artist with his use of loose brushstrokes and his interest in color and light. He also shows deference to the “primitive” Breton region with his depiction of the rural landscape and the women painted in traditional clothing. By showing woman in costume engaged in acts of religious devotion, he combines the customs and culture of Breton. Gauguin found in the Breton community “ a source of artistic inspiration that was at odds with, and of more value than, the civilized metropolitan culture of Paris” (Wood p. 174).
Difference helps to establish an artist as “modern” or “avant-garde” by showing how the artist is making a marked difference in advancement on the current issues regarding aesthetics or art criticism. While referencing Impressionist with some of his techniques, he also breaks away from them with his use of lines, shapes, color, and space. The figure of Christ in the painting shows Gauguin’s use of heavy lines to outline his figures, which he believed helped to give them a more ‘primitive’ quality. Color and form are abstracted and simplified. The trees become simple shapes of color instead of details of individual leaves, as is some of the women’s clothing. There is some hint of illusion with the trees receding into the background, but overall the picture is very flat. Other differences that separate Gauguin from Impressionist artists, include his breaking away from scientific observation and instead focusing on the deeper ideas in the painting through his use of color and form. Images were to represent inate artistic impulses within the artist’s psyche through the primitive characteristics expressed in the imagery (Wood p. 174). He synthesized feelings and observations through his use of the different technical elements (line, shape, color, and space) and went beyond just the formal observation alone. A noticeable difference, as well, is using the figure of Christ as a self-portrait, which changes the perception and the romantic view of the artist as a courageous independent struggling against the traditions of the public. It instead portrays the male artist as a superior being producing deep truths and purer forms of art.
By utilizing Pollock’s method for establishing artists as avant-garde, Gauguin’s painting “Yellow Christ” fits within her criteria of reference, deference, and differences. While he referenced the traditions of other artists and art styles, and showed deference to some of the techniques of the Impressionists artists, his use of lines, colors, shapes, and space within his image, and his ideas and feelings represented in the imagery, help to separate him from the Impressionist artists of the time.