Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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In a letter to Van Gogh (in Arles), dated 22 September 1888, Gauguin writes:
‘I have just painted a religious picture, very badly done but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church at Ponte-Aven. Naturally they don’t want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes very intense black. The coifs very luminous yellowy-white. The two coifs to the right are like monstrous helmets… I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing very severe… For me in this painting the landscape and the fight exist only in the imagination of the people at prayer after the sermon. That is why there is a contrast between the people, who are natural and the struggle and the struggle going on in the landscape which is not natural and out of proportion’
This picture is Gauguin’s ground-breaking Vision after the Sermon, a response to the powerful atmosphere of religiosity which pervaded Brittany at the time and which made a deep impression on him. But more than that, this painting is a radical departure from observed reality both in terms of colour and structure.
A bough of a tree cuts across the composition, perhaps forming a boundary between the congregation, who have just left the church, and the visionary wrestling match. The startling red ground forms the ‘arena’ for the contest. Most of the women grouped to the left are praying. We cannot tell if the two prominent traditional Breton headdresses in the foreground hide praying women but to their left one woman seems to observe the proceedings through open eyes. As for the priest, seen on the extreme right of the painting, there is a good case for thinking that he has been given the features of the artist – certainly the nose would seem to represent evidence for that view.
Vision of the Sermon became a key work for the Synthetist strand of Symbolism – the next year, the young critic Albert Aurier in an article on the painting, crowns Gauguin as the leader of the Symbolist school of painting. But the influence of Japonisme is also present – the image of the wrestlers is based on drawings of sumo wrestlers by the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.
The vision is a scene from Genesis in which Jacob spends the night alone by a river and encounters a ‘man’ who wrestles with him for part of the night. It is a matter of some debate who this personage might be but ‘he’ is usually described as an angel.
1888 Claude Monet: Antibes, London, Courtauld Institute Galleries
1888 Edward Burne-Jones: Tower of Brass, Glasgow, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum