French society and culture has always had a fascination with the exotic, going back to the Chinoiserie of the rococo period, the Orientalist fascination with the harems and slave markets of the Middle East, and the Japonisme of the 19th century. One might even suspect that this trait could represent a certain vacuous element in French society.
In the aftermath of the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris, however, this outward-looking urge may now come into question. But if France should become a more inward-looking society, it can take solace from the fact that the country has always had a lot of its own inner richness, being a state composed of many unique sub-regions, each with its own local culture.
It is interesting to view the exhibition now on at the Shiodome Museum in this light. Titled “Gauguin and the Painters of Pont-Aven,” the exhibition features the art of Paul Gauguin and related artists who lived and worked in the artistic colony of Pont-Aven, an idyllic town set in the beautiful countryside of Brittany.
Gauguin, of course, is famous for his paintings of life on Tahiti, but rather than focusing on those exotic works, the exhibition turns its attention to his long-running love affair with Brittany and the lesser but still significant exoticism of the art he created there.
Even today, Brittany is a distinct part of France — it even has its own Celtic language, leading some to refer to it as the “French Wales” — but the difference was even more marked in Gauguin’s day, when the area was a relatively undeveloped farming area with strong, semi-pagan folkish traditions. Gauguin’s interest in Brittany was thus an obvious prelude to his later Tahitian art.
Although flying under the flag of “Gauguin,” it should not be imagined that this exhibition comprises mainly Gauguin’s works. Of the 74 pieces included, around a dozen are by Gauguin, with the rest being by artists such as Emile Bernard, Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, and a host of lesser-known names.
With so many different artists of differing ability in the mix, the narrative may be a little muddied. A narrower group of artists would perhaps have made the story clearer. But the story, such as it is, centers on the dissatisfaction of Gauguin and other artists with the artistic options of their day, and their quest to achieve a more authentic and spiritually satisfying form of expression.
Gauguin’s initial reason for heading to Pont-Aven seems to have been partly financial. As a young man, he had been a well-paid stockbroker, but by 1886 he was living the life of a relatively poor artist. Places like Pont-Aven were a cheap alternative to life in Paris. And once there, Gauguin found the local culture fascinating.
The reasons Gauguin was attracted to the exotic, whether in France or Brittany, are complex. Some of them have to do with his own mixed parentage and childhood in Peru. But, in artistic terms, he felt that the art of his time had lost touch with its ritualistic and symbolic functions.
The rise of movements and fashions meant that artists were becoming increasingly imitative and losing their authenticity. What was required was an eschewal of sophisticated techniques and aesthetic norms, and instead the embrace of immediate moods and sensations. This meant an interest in more primitive and naive forms of expression.
Perhaps the best example of this impulse from the Gauguin’s on display is “Breton Landscape with Breton Women” (1888). In this work, Gauguin makes a show of ignoring the conventional rules of composition. One woman stands right in front of the other, almost erasing her from the picture, while a cow stands awkwardly on a slope, in front of a rock.
All this is done in Gauguin’s characteristic burnished brushstrokes that sometimes evoke the “feel” of freshly brushed hair. The end result is that we have a much more striking image than would have resulted if the scene had been more conventionally painted — and one that no doubt represented the actual unfussy reality of the place.
A similar note of unself-conscious innocence can be found “Le Meridienne” by Jean-Bertrand Pegot-Ogier, which shows a peasant sprawled on the ground enjoying a midday nap.
But such works don’t represent the end goal. What these artists were striving for was a revival of the sacralization of everyday life that had been lost in the modern industrial era. This is made clear in Paul Serusier’s “Incantation or The Sacred Forest” (1891), which shows what appears to be a pagan ritual being carried out by peasant women. A similar mood infuses Maurice Denis’ “The Pardon of Folgoet” (1930), which focuses on an annual Christian ceremony for pilgrims.
Many of the painters here were on their own pilgrimage, and in Pont-Aven they found their holy site.
“Gauguin and the Painters of Pont-Aven” at the Panasonic Shiodome Museum runs until Dec. 20; daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. panasonic.co.jp/es/museum