Gauguin comes to the Walters

November 18, 1994

In the rural French province of Brittany near the town of Pont-Aven, the painter Paul Gauguin sought to "find the primitive and the savage" and to "restore painting to its sources." In doing so, he transformed the world of art.

The fruits of these labors may be seen in the stunning new show at the Walters Art Gallery that opens this Sunday. "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven" surveys the remarkable efforts of nearly two dozen seminal artists whose vision influenced the course of painting well into the 20th century.

For a decade between 1886 and 1896, the village of Pont-Aven rivaled Paris as a center of artistic importance. There, a vigorous and lively international group of painters led by Gauguin painstakingly worked to develop a new style based on the artist's emotional reaction to the scene before his canvas rather than its visual appearance. Gauguin summed up this subjective, Romantic approach to painting as "The dream caught sight of . . . something far stronger than anything material." And he advised his students: "Don't copy much from nature. Art is abstraction."

What came to be known as the Pont-Aven school was a conscious reaction to Impressionism, with its emphasis on capturing the transitory effects of light on the appearance of objects. Gauguin and his circle rejected the naturalistic approach to painting in favor of a two-dimensional, non-representational style that reduced the most significant components of a scene to simple shapes and colors.

"Gauguin freed us from all the restraints which the idea of copying nature had placed on us," wrote the painter Maurice Denis. In liberating painting from the requirement of representing the visual appearance of the world, Gauguin and his circle laid the foundation for all the modernist schools that followed. Expressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism and their offshoots each owe something to Gauguin and Pont-Aven.

"Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven" presents more than 110 works by 21 artists, including 16 by Gauguin himself, drawn from a renowned private European collection. It is the most comprehensive exhibition of Pont-Aven art ever to visit this country, and the Walters show will be its only East Coast venue. Lovers of painting will relish this magnificent survey of the life and times of one of the most fascinating figures in the history of art.

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