Posts Tagged 'Gauguin'

Artist Spotlight: Emile Bernard

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with our docents about two paintings within the collection by 19th-century, French artist Emile Bernard (1868-1941).  Both of these works feature Breton women (from the region of Brittany in France) in traditional festival attire.  In the late-19th century, the villages of Brittany, like many other rural sites outside Paris, had become the center of various artist colonies.  The most well-documented of these sites is the city of Pont-Aven, which between 1886 and 1894 became the stomping ground of notable artists such as Paul Gauguin, Paul Serusier, and Emile Bernard.  This cast of characters, along with an international array of artists from countries such as Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, became known as the Pont-Aven School and triumphed a pared-down aesthetic that departed from the naturalism of Impressionism and emphasized a synthesis of the impressions of nature and abstract forms that underlined emotional experience. 

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Brittany was fertile ground for the Pont-Aven School artists because of its association with an exotic aesthetic that played up the primitivism of the picturesque peasants and overlooked the industrial developments and spread of Parisian taste and sophistication to the not-so-remote villages.  In this sense, what the artists left out–factories, commericalism, and modern advancements–become just as much the subject of the work as what they included.

Bernard first visited Brittany in 1886 and would return to the region the next four summers.  In 1888, he worked closely with Paul Gauguin, and together they launched the Synthesist style that characterized much of the work coming out of Pont-Aven.  Bernard was inspired by Medieval cloisonne, or the technique of applying enamel partitions within stained glass.  He and Gauguin, like many artists of the period, also looked to Japanese prints for inspiration and a means to rejuvenate the European style. 

The two DMA paintings by Bernard are dated 1891 and 1892 by the artist in the lower right-hand corner of the canvases next to his signature.  In 1893, he left for a ten-year soujourn in Egypt and would not return to Brittany until 1910 for a brief stay and 1939-1940 for an extended stay the year before his death.

“Othering” is the act of creating an uneven power hierarchy through the myth of a binary of “us” and “them.”  This serves tp emphasize the percieved weaknesses of “them,” or the marginalized society, as a means of underlining the superiority and right to power of “us.”

These works of art can be used with students at the Museum or in the classroom.  They are a great jumping off point to think about exoticism and its role in art.  Exoticism is typically associated with well-known works by Orientalist painters such as Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and primitivists like Paul Gauguin.  The Pont-Aven School works embody similar ideas of “othering,” except that the exotic projections take place within France and become a sort of internal othering.   What other examples of othering, based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. can you think of in art and popular visual culture?

Ashley Bruckbauer
McDermott Intern for Teacher Programs and Resources

A Curator’s Best Days

The best days in a curator’s professional life are often the days spent in the conservation lab. That’s where we get to spend quality time with works of art and talk to conservators, the fantastically knowledgeable people who can look through a microscope or infrared scope and tell you the life history of an object. I was lucky enough to spend several hours in the painting conservation lab of the Midwestern Art Conservation Center (MACC), a private conservation center housed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). I was there to confer with conservator David Marquis just before he begins cleaning an important painting in the DMA’s collections, Paul Gauguin’s Under the Pandanus, also known by its Maori title I Raro Te Oviri.

Gauguin painted Under the Pandanus in 1891, a few months after he arrived in Tahiti for the first time.  Sometime later, possibly the next year, he painted a second version of the composition, and that picture is now in the collection of the MIA. When I got to the MACC lab, they had brought both paintings to the lab and removed them from their frames so that we could do a thorough comparison. Ours is on the right, the MIA version on the left.

Last year we began to look closely at the condition of our painting, and earlier this summer we sent our painting to the MACC for technical analysis. Once the two versions of the painting were placed side by side, the differences become more and more obvious . . . and intriguing.

Though the technical study had just begun, David Marquis immediately pointed out how dirty the surface of the DMA canvas was, and how discolored the old layer of varnish had become. This yellowed varnish layer and surface layer of grime radically changed the appearance of the painting. MIA Associate Curator of Paintings, Sue Canterbury, described it as being like looking at the painting through a double-amber filter—not exactly what Gauguin had intended! The MIA version, which was cleaned within the last ten years, gives us a much better sense of what our painting must have looked like when it was first completed.

Once we decided to take off these two “amber filters,” David Marquis began by making “cleaning windows,” that is, cleaning small areas of the canvas. This is the first window he opened, in an area of the horizon near the right edge of the painting.

The results are pretty amazing! The white surf is actually so much brighter and cooler in tone than it appears in the dirty areas. Now that he knew what the cleaning might reveal, David opened some windows in other areas. When I got to the lab to take a look, several areas of the canvas had been cleaned, revealing a whole new palette of colors.

Once David’s cleaning of the varnish and grime is complete later this summer, we’ll have a much better sense of the choices Gauguin made while he was working on our painting, as well as how the painting has changed over time and the extent of work done by earlier conservators. We’re just at the beginning of this important project, so stay tuned for future updates about the results of our study of Under the Pandanus, and look for it to be back in the galleries, and looking better than ever, next year.

Heather MacDonald is The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art at the DMA.


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