After several exhibitions devoted to some major Surrealist artists and to a brilliant approach of Fernand Léger's œuvre in 2009, the Malingue gallery has decided this season to come back to the beginnings of 20th century art, by showing a group of works from the so-called "Pont-Aven" period in Émile Bernard's work.
An outstanding young man, intelligent and sophisticated, knowledgeable about art and rebellious concerning academic learning, fascinated by experimentation, Émile Bernard was a fully fledged participant in the history of the early modern art forms. Dissatisfied by the various approaches of Impressionism, he imagined and at first developed - in 1886-1887 - a painterly theory called "Cloisonnisme" (simple and dazzling designs, brilliantly colored and heavily outlined, like in the age-old enamel techniques: "Compartmentalizing"), which were to lead to "Syntheticism" and "Symbolism".
At a time when Cézanne was the main model for the young "revolutionaries" ("One might say, if one wished, that it was Cézanne who was the first to compartmentalize", said Paul Sérusier), that synthetic vision of art, confronting the Impressionists' analytic vision, was experimented, discussed, developed from the very start by Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, during their joint stay in Pont-Aven during the summer of 1888. Now one must paint from memory, give up open air work, it is up to the mind to interpret the subject and no longer just copy it faithfully.
Les Bretonnes dans la prairie is the key-work, the painted symbol of this thought process, the birth certificate of Syntheticism, and the Malingue gallery is extremely proud and happy to have the opportunity to show this work in the exhibition.
Around this mythical painting, which continues to unite queries and quarrels concerning the pre-eminence of Émile Bernard and Gauguin, (who painted the Vision du Sermon immediately afterwards), are grouped fifteen paintings, pointing up the main aspects of Émile Bernard's production during that short time: still-lives, daily scenes of the Breton peasants' lives (going about their daily tasks, in church, at market), portraits and self-portraits, and images of bathers.
For Daniel Malingue, this exhibition is also an opportunity to recall his first forays as an amateur of the Pont-Aven School, since he organized, with his father, in 1961, an exhibition Gauguin et ses amis, in Pont-Aven. It was thus perfectly natural for the gallery to come back to invoke Émile Bernard's undoubted participation in the new aesthetics that grew during the first years of the 20th century.
Paul Gauguin to Van Gogh
"I am studying the young Bernard whom I know less well that you; I think you would be good for him and he needs it. Naturally he has suffered and he is setting out in life, filled with bile, used to seeing the worst side of mankind. I hope that with his intelligence and his love of art, he will one day realize that kindness is a strength against others and a consolation for our private mishaps. He loves and admires you, you could therefore have a good influence on him."
Paul Gauguin, letter to Van Gogh, Pont-Aven, September 8 1888, in Vincent van Gogh. Les Lettres. Edition critique complète illustrée, Arles-Amsterdam, Editions Actes Sud-Van Gogh Museum, 2009, volume 4, lettre 675
"I continued my quest for symbolism owing to my aspirations and to nature, without worrying about the approval or disapproval of Van Gogh who was then [late 1886] my only friend. I showed the middling ones to Louis Anquetin after a six months journey on foot in Brittany. The sea's huge sites, the endless marshes, the strong harmonies of that countryside, almost holy, site of legends customs and pious monuments carried out with a smooth naivety, had shown me the way. I thought of getting rid of everything that was an obstacle to my vision of generality, and I walked towards symbolism through synthesis. I then wrote: « Everything that overburdens a sight covers it with reality and fills our eyes to the detriment of our minds. We must simplify the spectacle in order to discover its meaning. In a way, one must make an outline », and in fact, I did manage to make more or less significant outlines."
Émile Bernard, Mémoire pour l'Histoire du Symbolisme pictural de 1890, Maintenant 3, 1919, quoted in Propos sur l'Art, Paris, Séguier, 1994
Paul Gauguin to Émile Bernard
"My dear Émile,
[…]You hold all the trump cards. In the saddle early in the morning, you will arrive fully armed, in the whole force of your youth at the moment when the path has been cleared of a good many brambles. You are extremely gifted and if you had arrived, but at another time, i.e. ten years ago, you would have found nobody to admire and look at you. So all is going well for you."
Paul Gauguin, letter to Émile Bernard, Pont-Aven, October 1888, in Paul Gauguin. Lettres à sa femme et à ses amis, recueillies, annotées et préfacées par Maurice Malingue, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1946-2003, p. 153
Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh
"Have you seen the sketches Bernard brought back from Brittany. Gauguin has told me many things. He has one that is quite simply masterly. I think that in buying one from Bernard we would doing him a service and he genuinely deserves it."
Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, circa September 21,1888, in Vincent van Gogh. Les Lettres. Edition critique complète illustrée, Arles-Amsterdam, Editions Actes Sud-Van Gogh Museum, 2009, volume 4, lettre 722
Paul Gauguin to Émile Bernard
"My dear Bernard,
I see, on reading your letter, that we are all pretty much in the same boat. The moments of doubt, the results never coming up to expectations; and the shortage of encouragement of others, all that leads to our being flayed with thorns. Well, what to about it, if not to fume, fight back against all these difficulties; even when down to keep on saying. Always and always. Basically painting is like man, i.e. death prone but always alive while fighting matter.
[…] It is clear that you are very gifted, and also that you are very knowledgeable. What do you care for the opinion of louts and jealous people? I don't think it need worry you too long. What can I say about myself, I have not been very blessed by the others and I intend to become ever more incomprehensible. What do I care? You are young and I think something is missing, a void that will soon be filled by age. It is by knowing yourself so well, in the midst of all you have seen, felt, suffered, you are lost. But all that will pass […] You have seen too much in too short a time. Take a rest from looking (for a very long while). Take what you will in what I have told you. In any case, be sure that on my part, there will never be anything other than good intentions."
Paul Gauguin, letter to Émile Bernard, Pont-Aven, early September 1889, quoted in Paul Gauguin. Lettres à sa femme et à ses amis, recueillies, annotées et préfacées par Maurice Malingue, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1946-2003
"Whatever befalls, and whatever name the future will give to that art movement [Symbolism] that we are talking about here, in this decisive moment in modern art history, there a certain number of images that rise up in my memory when I summon up the memory of that time, which was the time of my youth.
The first of these images is […] the Café Volpini. There were shown, in white frames, the first works of the new painting style. […] The drawings' deformations, their caricatural aspect, the colors placed flatly, everything was scandalous. But those who have once felt the shock of those paintings […], those are henceforth unsurprised before other daring attempts […].
There were then seventeen painitngs by Gauguin […].There were twenty-three by Émile Bernard […]
I was still in the Académie Julian, although studying at the École des Beaux-Arts.What a dazzling sight at first and what revelations afterwards! Instead of windows opening onto nature, like the Impressionists' paintings, they were heavily decorative surfaces, powerfully colored and outlined with a brutal stroke, compartmentalized, because we also spoke, on that subject, of compartmentalization, and also of Japanism. We found in these unusual works the influence of Japanese prints, of Holy pictures, of sign paintings, Roman stylization".
Maurice Denis, "L'époque du symbolisme", Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1934