Pont-Aven is a rural area in Brittany, France.What does this remote location northeast of Paris have to do with life in Paris? The lure of this countryside setting reflects how changes in Paris city-life were causing unrest in some towards the end of the nineteenth century. Growing tired of Impressionism, and painting what they saw, a small group of artists sought to use their painting for expression, to rely on intuition and imagination, with complete disregard for reality. Together, the artificiality of the city and the open-mindedness of these individuals naturally led them to the landscape of Brittany. Thus, the stimulus that drove Parisian artists to Pont-Aven is symbolic of the Symbolist values in art.

There were two main aspects of the Pont-Aven environment that inspired the artists. The first was the natural setting that presented a more primitive and simple existence. A stark contrast to the city, the scenery at Pont-Aven gave the artists room to have the freedom of spirit they needed to create from within. For these reasons we see many landscapes painted with lack of inhibition, full of color and abstraction, as in Paul Serusier's Talisman. Secondly, the artists were attracted to the rich heritage and folklore that existed amongst the peasant lifestyle. The colorful traditions of the culture provided escape from their gray perception of the burgeoning city. Many of the paintings created at Pont-Aven feature the ancestral costumes of the people. Breton women especially, with their distinct headdress. For example, Paul Gauguin's La Belle Angele, which was presented as a gift to the subjects parents, and rejected outright due to the unconventional composition.

Bois d'amour (Talisman)
Paul Serusier, 1888

La Belle Angele
Paul Gauguin, 1889

The Aesthetic:

This avant-garde style that was not ready to be accepted even by the peasants, was developed in this region. One of the formal aspects that create the innovative aesthetic is characterized today as cloissonism. Named after the enameling technique, this painting method appears as flat areas of color, sectioned off by bold outlines. This technique, pioneered largely by Emile Bernard, created an unusual effect. The forceful contours producing an abstract pattern over the picture, as the separation gives both the lines and surfaces their own existence. Furthermore, this practice causes the composition to appear on a single, flat plane, giving the paintings a one-dimensionality that was very uncommon and strange to people of that time. Another formal aspect that caused alarm in viewers of these paintings was the use of arbitrary color. Evocative of the symbolist poets' allusions of unreality, the painters at Pont-Aven used shockingly unnatural colors that reflected their intentions rather than their rationality. For instance, the red grass in Bernard's, Buckwheat Harvest, gives the scene an otherworldliness.

The School of Thought

Although the happenings at Pont-Aven did not constitute an actual school of painting, these artists who journeyed there shared some common beliefs and practices which bound them together. Paul Gauguin, not only favored cloissonism and arbitrary color, but also accentuated the techniques so much as to become known as the father of the school of Pont-Aven. Some of his approaches towards painting can be used to sum up those shared values.

Buckwheat Harvest
Emile Bernard, 1888

Vision After The Sermon
Paul Gauguin, 1888

He believed in avoiding the creation of illusions in order to present realms of alternate reality. One way of doing this was by juxtaposing the ordinary and the supernatural as in, A Vision After the Sermon. Another idea that came out of this period was that simplicity leads to a world free for expression and interpretation. The simplicity of style found its calling in the simplicity of life at Pont-Aven. The Loss of Innocence, painted by Gauguin, illustrates this. A simple scene empowered with deep and hidden complexities.

Return to Paris...

The Return to Paris saw the first Symbolist exhibition in 1888. In 1891, Albret Aurier wrote an article entitled, "Gauguin, or the Symbolist Movement in Painting". Using Gauguin's work to illustrate what he considered the five characteristics of Symbolism to be; ideative, symbolic, synthetic, subjective, and decorative.

The Loss of Innocence
Paul Gauguin, 1890

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