Why Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon Was Important for Abstract Art
Oct 13, 2017
Paul Gauguin painted Vision After the Sermon in 1888. It was a religious, which took as its jumping off point a story from the Christian Bible. The tale comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 32, verses 22 through 31. It concerns the character named Jacob, who would later be renamed Israel, and who is considered to be the historical progenitor of the Israelites. The verse goes as follows: “The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” The general poetic or philosophical interpretation of this scene is that it concerns a man who is battling with his demons, so to speak. The man, Jacob, wrestles with what is evidently an angel, a representative of divinity. The Jabbok River (a.k.a. the Jordan River) separates Jacob from Canaan, or the Promised Land. So Jacob is, in essence, trying to make peace the old fashioned way between the better and worse elements of his human nature so that he can get on with simply living a decent life. It is a fascinating subject for Gaugin to have chosen for this painting because the painting itself has developed a similar sort of interpretation among art historians. It is considered a turning point in the Post-Impressionist march toward abstraction. It is a fitting subject matter for a painting that plays a pivotal role in the process of artists battling their demons as they try to make peace with what art is supposed to be so they can get on with simply making decent work.
Gauguin was a member of a small group of painters in the late 19th Century who believed that before becoming an illusionary image, a painting was first and foremost just colors applied to a surface. The process of transforming the paint and surface into something realistic, like a picture of something identifiable, came later, after the fact. In the minds of these forward-thinking artists, that later step was not so important any more, and was even starting to seem unnecessary. They were starting to appreciate things like color and surface on their own merits, regardless of what forms, shapes and illusionary spaces they were being used to create. In general, this mindset began with Impressionism, a style that focused on the quality of light in an image. But the period now known as Post-Impressionism is when such ideas really began to take off.
The list of Post-Impressionist movements that reduced painting to its formal elements, eventually leading up to pure abstraction, is long. It includes Symbolism, Synthetism, Cloisonnism, Fauvism, Cubism, and many more -isms. Each of these movements came about in fairly rapid succession in the last decades of the 19th Century. Each took on some particular agenda, isolating one or more elements of classical art and subverting it in order to discover something new about the potential of painting. Among the elements that these artists were trying to eliminate were perspective, gradation of colors, realistic colors, comprehensible subject matter, and the idea that shapes and forms had to be representative of elements of the real world. One of the key aspects about Vision After the Sermon that makes it so iconic of this overall drive toward abstraction is that it tackles almost all of those elements at once.
Perspective and Gradation
Perspective and gradation of colors are two of the most essential, defining elements of classical painting styles. Together, they can lend a painting a powerful sense of realism, because they create the illusionary space within the image. Perspective gives a painting a sense of depth, and a feeling like the physical forms in the illusionary space make sense to the eye, just like they would in real life. No matter how photographically perfect a painting is, without as sense of realistic perspective, the illusion is broken. Meanwhile, the gradual gradation of colors is what gives the tones of objects in the painting their realistic qualities. Skin tone is not just one color, it is hundreds, maybe thousands of colors gradually blended into each other. Without gradation, colors become unrealistic and the image begins to look uncanny or even absurd.
Vision After the Sermon almost completely eliminaes both perspective and gradation of color, though not entirely. Gauguin cleverly used the religious subject matter to confuse whether the image is intended to be realistic or not. It shows a group of what appear to be nuns and one priest gathered together in a line, some standing and some kneeling. Perspective is used somewhat traditionally for this part of the picture. But the rest of the picture seems more like a dream. There has evidently been a sermon, and these nuns are coming out of church afterward. The sermon must have been the story of Jacob battling his demons, because that is the image that is playing out before the eyes of the nuns in a mystical, almost Surrealist space in the top part of the picture. In that area of the frame, there is no attempt at perspective, no attempt at depth, and almost a complete elimination of gradation of color. The image is flattened, so to speak.
Paul Gauguin - Vision after the Sermon, 1888, Oil on canvas, 72,20 x 91,00 cm
Unnatural Colors and Forms
The colors in Visions After the Sermon are not entirely outrageous, as they would become later on in the works of Fauvist painters. But in this painting Gauguin did take a giant leap toward that eventual end by making the bold move of painting a massive swath of the picture what he called “pure vermillion.” Vermillion is a red pigment that was once commonly used in painting. It was derived from a mineral called cinnabar, which contained so much mercury that even as far back as Roman times it was known that to mine the mineral was a death sentence. The pigment is not easy to find anymore for that reason. It is toxic. But it lends this piece a particularly ominous tone. The red can be seen as a symbolic color, implying anger, death, and danger. It defines the image as something unreal, something dreamlike.
As for the forms, it is clear that for the most part Gauguin intended them to be somewhat realistic. The image clearly shows human figures, a cow, a tree, and a man wrestling with an angel. But there are moments in the picture that suggest that Gauguin was not so much interested in replicating reality with his forms, but rather he was just fascinated by the qualities of the forms themselves. This is most evident in the headdresses worn by the nuns. Beginning with the headdress in the forefront, on the bottom right of the picture, the shape is reduced to its geometric essence. Throughout the image Gaugin follows that tendency again and again. If the faces were eliminated from the image, the remaining areas of color would lose much of their narrative power, and the image could easily slip into an abstract composition.
One of the questions that often comes up when talking about Post-Impressionist painters is whether thy really knew exactly what they were trying to do. And of course in the case of painters like Gauguin, the answer is yes. He and his contemporaries, such as Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, and Émile Bernard were avid philosophers, writers and experimenters. They were fully intent on breaking down the definition of painting and the meaning of art. They were going out of their way to discover what, if anything, there is about art that could be contemplative, transcendent, and even spiritual, besides its narrative subject matter.
In fact, when it comes to the experimental intentions of these artists, I personally feel that another painting, painted the year before Vision After the Sermon, went much farther toward uncovering the potentialities hidden within abstraction. That painting is The Talisman, painted by Paul Sérusier on the last day of 1887. According to legend, Gauguin encouraged Sérusier to paint the piece. Regardless, it is truly groundbreaking. If only a pair of green lines running through the middle of the image were eliminated, it would be completely abstract. It would resemble almost perfectly the work Hans Hofmann created a generation later. It is the essence of Synthetism, the style to which Gauguin attributed himself, in that it synthesizes the outward essence of natural forms without copying them precisely with a sense of how the artist feels toward the forms in the picture and pure aesthetic consideration of color, line and form. Nonetheless, Vision After the Sermon is obviously important too, as it demonstrates many of the same ideas, making it a definite turning point in the march toward pure abstraction.
Featured image: Paul Gauguin - Vision after the Sermon (detail), 1888, Oil on canvas, 72,20 x 91,00 cm
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio