From Gauguin and van Gogh to Neo-Classicism – Maurice Denis

The great hurricane that renewed French art around 1890 originated in the shop of Pere Tanguy, colour-merchant, rue Clauzel, and in the Gloanec Inn at Pont-Aven. Gauguin gathered together at Pont-Aven a number of disciples: Chamaillard, Seguin, Filiger, Serusier, the Dutchman de Hahn. This formed the ‘weighty school of fundamentals, in the midst of large pitchers of cider’.

At Tanguy’s – he was a former member of the Commune, a gentle anarchistic dreamer – there were spread out for the edification of the young, the revolutionary productions of van Gogh, Gauguin, Emile Bernard and their emulators.

They hung in disarray next to canvases of the uncontested master, the initiator of the new movement, Paul Cezanne.

Bernard, van Gogh, Anquetin, Toulouse-Lautrec were the rebels of the Cormon studio: we were just ourselves. Bonnard, Ibels, Ranson, Denis, those around Serusier, were the rebels of the Julien studio. Sympathetic to everything that seemed new and subversive, we were drawn to those who wiped the slate clean of both academic teaching, and of romantic or photographic naturalism, which had been universally asserted to be the only theory worth taking seriously in a scientific and democratic epoch.


Those who witnessed the 1890 movement can no longer be shocked by anything; the most ludicrous and incomprehensible efforts of those who are now called the ‘Fauves’ can only stir memories of the extravagances of our generation. To know what excitement is, the vertigo of the unexpected, it is necessary to have seen the Volpini cafe during the exhibition of 1889. Tucked in a corner away from the Great Fair, far from the official art, and the masterpieces assembled for retrospectives, the first works by Gauguin, Bernard, Anquetin, etc. hung quite pathetically, brought together for the first time. […]

At this time, the critics reproached us for wanting to babble like children. Actually, we did return to childhood, we played the fool, and that was without doubt the most intelligent thing to do. Our art was an art of savages, of primitives. The movement of 1890 proceeded simultaneously from a state of extreme decadence and from the ferment of renewal. It was the moment when the diver touches bottom and resurfaces.

Without doubt, the hurricane of 1890 had been long prepared. These artists whose appearance caused a scandal, were the products of their time and place; it would be unjust to isolate them from their elders the Impressionists; in particular, it seems that the influence of Camille Pissarro on them was considerable. Moreover, they could not be reproached for having misunderstood their immediate precursors; and they showed from the outset the greatest esteem for those who launched them on their way; not only Camille Pissarro and Cezanne, and Degas, and Odilon Redon, but also Puvis de Chavannes whose official endorsement could have displeased their youthful intransigence.

It was therefore the necessary culmination – action and reaction together -of the great Impressionist movement. Everything has been said on this subject: the absence of any rule, the uselessness of academic teaching, the triumph of naturalism, the influence of Japan, all determined the joyous flourishing of an art apparently freed of all constraint. New motifs, the sun, and artificial lighting and all the vividness of modern life were allowed into the domain of art. Literature mixed with the vulgarities of Realism to put an end to the refined touches of Symbolism; the ‘slice of life’ was served ungarnished; at the same time the aristocratic love of the choice word, of the unadulterated state of the soul and of obscurity in poetry, provoked the lyricism of the young writers. That which we demanded of Cezanne, Gauguin and van Gogh, they found in the works of Verlaine, Mallarme and Laforgue: in a manifesto article in the Revue Encyclopedique Albert Aurier wrote: ‘Everywhere the right to dream is demanded, the right to fields of azure, the right to fly to the stars of absolute truth. The myopic copying of anecdotes from society, the stupid imitation of nature’s blemishes, dull observation, trompe-Poeil, the glory of being as true, as banally exact, as the photograph no longer satisfies any painter, any sculptor worthy of this name.’ Musicians, less nihilistic than painters, but like them preoccupied with more individual liberty and more expressiveness, submitted at once to the influence of Wagnerian romanticism, of Russian picturesqueness, and of the pure music which was revealed to them by Cesar Franck, Bach and the contrapuntilists of the sixteenth century.

Everything was in ferment. But finally it must be admitted that in the plastic arts, the idea of art as at first just restricted to the idea of the copy, relied on nothing more than Naturalist prejudice in both temperament and individual sensation. Critics said that that was how they saw things. We heightened the disgust with conventions, without any other goal than to destroy them: the right to do anything did not know any restriction. The excess of this anarchy brought about as a reaction the pursuit of the systematic and the taste for theory. […]

Van Gogh and Gauguin resumed with vigour this epoch of confusion and of renaissance. Next to the scientific impressionism of Seurat, they represented barbarity, revolution and fever – and finally docility. Their efforts at the beginning escaped every classification: and their theories were hard to differentiate from the older Impressionism. For them, as for their predecessors, art was the rendering of sensation, it was the exaltation of individual sensibility. All the elements of excess and disorder derived from Impressionism exasperated them at first; it was only little by little that they became aware of their innovative role, and they perceived that their synthetism or their symbolism is precisely the antithesis of Impressionism.

Their work conquered its domain of influence by its brutal and paradoxical nature. We see the proof in the Northern countries, Russia, Scandinavia, Finland, where their influence preceded – and prepared – that of Cezanne. Without the destructive and contradictory anarchism of Gauguin and van Gogh, the example of Cezanne, with everything that it brings with it from tradition, measure and order, would not have been understood. The revolutionary elements of their works were the vehicle for the constructive elements. However, for the attentive observer, it has been easy to distinguish since 1890, in the excessiveness of the works and the paradoxes of the theories, a classical reaction.

It suffices to remember that we have demanded since this distant era the title of ‘Neo-Traditionalists’. But that is unimportant compared to what has happened since. The important fact is that since then an evolution has occurred towards order, and even amongst those who participated in the movement of 1890, or those who claimed to be attached to it. [. . . ] In the midst of its elders, youth has become resolutely classical. One knows of the infatuation of the new generation for the seventeenth century, for Italy, for Ingres: Versailles is in fashion, Poussin applied to the nude; Bach always brings in a full house; Romanticism is ridiculed. In literature, in politics, young people have a passion for order. The return to tradition and to discipline is as unanimous as was the cult of the self and the spirit of revolt in our generation. In support of this, I note the fact that in the vocabulary of avant-garde critics, the word ‘classical’ is the supreme compliment, and consequently serves to designate the most ‘advanced 1 trends. Henceforth Impressionism will be considered an era of ‘ignorance and frenzy’ to which stands opposed ‘a more noble art, more measured, more ordered, more cultivated’ (consider the work of Braque).

Truly, the moment has come where it is necessary to choose, as Barres has said, between traditionalism and the intellectual point of view. Trade unionists, or monarchists of the Action Franchise, have equally come down to earth from their liberal or libertine clouds, and endeavour to remain within the logic of facts, to reason only with realities; but the monarchist theory, total nationalism, has amongst other advantages, that of keeping alive the successful experiences of the past. We, the other painters, have developed towards because we have had the joy of posing the double aesthetic and psychological problem of art. We have substituted for the idea of ‘nature viewed through a temperament’ [Zola], the theory of equivalences or of the symbol. We affirm that the emotions or states of the soul provoked by some spectacle, create in the artistic imagination signs or plastic equivalents capable of reproducing these emotions or states of the soul without the need to create a copy of the initial spectacle; that each state of our sensibility must correspond to an objective harmony capable of being thus translated.

Art is no longer a purely visual sensation that we record, a photograph of nature, as sophisticated as possible. On the contrary, it is a creation of our spirit which nature provokes. Instead of ‘working from vision, we search for the mysterious centre of thought’, as Gauguin said. The imagination becomes once again, as in Baudelaire, the queen of the faculties. Thus, we liberate our sensibility. Art, rather than a copy, becomes the subjective transformation of nature.

Objectively speaking, decorative, aesthetic and rational composition, which the Impressionists never considered because it ran contrary to their taste for improvisation, has become the counterpart, the necessary corrective to the theory of equivalents. In the cause of expressivity, this authorized all transpositions, even caricatures, any excesses of aspect: objective transformation has obliged each artist to transpose everything into beauty. In summary, the expressive synthesis, the symbol of a sensation has become an eloquent transcription of it, and simultaneously an object composed for visual pleasure.

Profoundly linked in Cezanne, these two trends developed to differing extents in van Gogh, Gauguin, Bernard, all of the old Synthetists. One can come to terms with their thinking, can basically summarize the essential element of their theories, as composed of two kinds of formal change. While decorative changes of form are the most common of Gauguin’s preoccupations, it is by contrast subjective changes in form which give van Gogh’s painting its character and lyricism. In the case of the former, one discovers beneath rustic or exotic surfaces, a rigorous logic and the artifices of composition, which, if one dare say it, preserves a little of the Italian rhetoric. The latter, by way of contrast, is an exasperated Romantic, who comes to us from the land of Rembrandt. The picturesque and the pathetic affect him more than plastic beauty and organization. Thus they represent an exceptional moment of the double movement, both Classical and Romantic. Let us look in these two painters of our youth for some concrete images to illustrate this abstract and perhaps obscure thesis.

In the spirited and abrupt style of van Gogh, in his search for radiance, and his violence of tone, I find everything that seduces the young Tachistes, and the reason why they content themselves with patches or streaks of pure colour. They admire his aggressive attitude in the face of nature, his abnormal, heightened, but truly lyrical vision of things; his impulse of conscience to say everything that he feels; the insistence with which he affirms the most capricious movements of his sensibility – and by what rudimentary means! – using a violent stroke, the bold relief of the thickening out of the paint. There is in his works an awkward way of attacking the canvas that the last of the Romantics took as a sign of genius; consider the heavy emphasis that Zola imposed on this type of painting in VGLuvre. The pathetic and trivial influence of Naturalism had left its mark even on this mystic, this sophisticated man, this poet; I still see this in the new generation. The word temperament, with all its animalistic connotations, has retained its prestige. Van Gogh, finally, caused in the younger generation a reversion to Romanticism.

* * *

[… ] Gauguin, who created so much disorder and incoherence in his life, did not tolerate any of this in his painting. He loved clarity, a sign of intelligence. The reconstruction of art, which Cezanne began with the materials of Impressionism, was continued by Gauguin with less sensibility and breadth, but with more theoretical rigour. He made the thoughts of Cezanne more explicit. In re-immersing them in the sources of art, in investigating the primary principles which he called the eternal laws of the beautiful, he gave them a greater force. ‘Barbarity’, he wrote, ‘is for me a return to youth … I have retreated far, further than the horses of the Parthenon . . . right back to the dada of my childhood, the beloved wooden horse.’

We are indebted to the barbarians, to the primitives of 1890, for having highlighted some essential truths. We can no longer reproduce nature and life by more or less improvised trompe-l’oeil, but on the contrary, must reproduce our emotions and our dreams by representing them, using forms and harmonious colours. This is, I insist, a new position – at least for our times – on the problem of the nature of art. This concept is a fertile one.

I repeat, this concept is the fundamental one in art of all ages; there is no real art which is not Symbolist. [. . .]

If the youth of today manages to reject the negative systems which have disorganized art and aesthetics – and, simultaneously, French society and intelligence – they will find the truly contemporary elements of a classical restoration in our Synthetist or Symbolist views, in the rational interpretation of Cezanne and Gauguin. The theories of 1890 will have done more than just give a paradoxical twist to eternal verities. They will have made a new order rise up from anarchy. Our simple methods had at least the advantage of adapting themselves to new elements introduced by Impressionism, and of using them. Born of an attitude of decadence, they do not offer us an irresistible idea from the distant past, but organize the fresh resources of modern art, our realities, in such a way as to allow us to reconcile the example of the masters and the demands of our sensibility.

The history of art is nothing other than a perpetual beginning. The same principles of colour which make up the richness of a Gauguin or a van Goch were applied by Tintoretto and Titian. The beauty of the curves, the style of the lines of a Degas or a Puvis de Chavannes can be found on the side of Greek vases, and of primitive frescoes.

We are aware of only a small number of positive truths; at least we can verify in the past glimpses of laws, certainties acquired by our own unfettered experience. Thus the idea of tradition, at first shapeless and rudimentary, has developed and enriched itself.

* * *

As the language of man, symbol of ideas, art can only be idealistic. Any confusion on this point has, hopefully, been definitively dispelled. We have once more given pride of place to intelligence, and highest of all, imagination, in the work of the artist. Whatever the impetus of a work towards nature, one must not forget that art does not have superior value unless it corresponds to the noblest and the most mysterious characteristics of the human soul. There is no example of a great artist who was not also a great poet, nor of a great work whose subject was purely pictorial. The most painterly of painters, Rembrandt, Rubens or Corot, were never content with being superb technicians: the works which immortalized them are, properly speaking, religious, no matter what their literary content may be.

The productions of modern art do not extend far beyond a small circle of initiates; these are small coteries which benefit from it. Every type of sensibility, every artist, incomplete though he may be, possesses a set of admirers, his public. Now the work of art must reach and move all people. The classical masterpieces have a character of universality, of the absolute, either because they express and epitomize an entire civilization, or because they give rise to a new . These masterpieces depict an order of the universe, a divine order, that the human intelligence can manifest in a way that is fundamentally the same, though presented via a variety of individual formulations. These formulations only become classical to the extent that they express this order with greater eloquence and clarity. […]

In this essay we have not tried to explain the enigma of genius. We circle around this miracle only to define various approaches and differing aspects. The evolution from Symbolism to that we have tried to make clear and to explain, does not diminish artistic spontaneity. If we hope that artistic freedom knows definite limits and that its sensibility submits itself to the judgment of reason, we also hope that these limits will increase its virtues, and that genius restrained by proper rules will acquire greater concentration, depth and force. It is true that we are tired of the individualist spirit, which rejects tradition, teaching and discipline and considers the artist as a kind of demi-god, whose caprice defies rules. It is true that this falsehood, initially our own, has become intolerable to us. However, we still maintain, from our Symbolist point of view, that the work of art is a general translation of individual emotions. The new order that we have discerned, born out of the experiences and the theories of 1890, born from anarchy itself, is based on a subordination of the faculties one to another. At the bottom level one always finds sensation; it proceeds from particular sensibility to general reason. One would not know how to look for the subject of a work of art except in individual perception, in the spontaneous perception of a relation, of an equivalence between certain states of the soul and certain plastic signs which they necessarily translate. The novelty consists in thinking that this type of symbolism, far from being incompatible with the classical method, can renew the effectiveness of that method and draw admirable developments from it. Not the least advantage of our system is the fact that the basis for a very objective art, a very general and plastic language, even a classical art, is the most subjective and the most subtle aspect of the human soul, the most mysterious spirit of our inner life.

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