In Search Of.Gauguin in Brittany ; Chris Coplans Discovers an Artist Whose Character Was as Colourful as His Paintings

By Coplans, Chris | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), April 2, 2003 | Go to article overview
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In Search Of.Gauguin in Brittany ; Chris Coplans Discovers an Artist Whose Character Was as Colourful as His Paintings


Coplans, Chris, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


That's odd. I associate Gauguin's paintings with Tahiti, not France.

As do most of us, but it was to Brittany that Gauguin first came in search of the "savage spirit", long before his quest for paradise took him to the South Seas. "I love Brittany," the artist wrote to a friend in 1888. "There is something wild and primitive about it. When my wooden clogs strike this granite ground, I hear the muffled, dull, powerful tone I seek in my painting." This year is the centenary of Gauguin's death, and Brittany is paying tribute.

Where does the tourist trail begin in Brittany?

Pont-Aven. By the time Gauguin arrived in 1885, the quaint, staunchly Breton community was already an artists' colony; specific pensions catered to artists of different nationalities. Gauguin went to stay in the predominantly French-patronized Gloanec Inn.

Was the clog-wearing maestro happy in Brittany?

He quickly established himself as the alpha male of the aesthetic tribe and seemed to revel in his reputation as a ladies' man. Writing to his long-suffering wife, Mette, he noted: "I take psychological satisfaction in ruling the roost here in Pont-Aven. All the artists fear me and like me. Not a single one resists my convictions." The Bretons, however, were not overly impressed by his behaviour.

Would Pont-Aven be worth visiting if it weren't for Gauguin?

Definitely. Locals would describe the town as "14 mills, 15 houses". With its tiny, cobbled lanes, granite houses and the sound of rushing water everywhere, Pont-Aven still has a 19th-century feel about it. Sitting in one of the cafes overlooking Le River Aven and the last working watermill, it is easy to see why Gauguin was seduced by its charms.

Are there any of Gauguin's works left in Pont Aven?

Yes. The Musee de Pont-Aven (00 33 02 98 06 14 43) has three of his paintings on permanent display and this year will hold an exhibition of the Pont-Aven school which includes seven Gauguins, from 28 June to 29 September.

Are there any other Gauguin sights in Pont-Aven?

Just a short schlep through the woods is the chapel at Tremalo, the inspiration for one of Gauguin's most famous paintings, The Yellow Christ. High up on a wall hangs a carved crucifix. It is brown, not yellow, but immediately recognisable from the painting. Gauguin used a mirror image of the painting in a self-portrait.

Can I sleep in Gauguin's bed?

The Gloanec Inn is now a newsagent's, but you can stay at the Hotel Les Ajoncs D'Or, in Pont-Aven's main square, unmistakable with its with bright blue shuttered windows (00 33 2 98 06 02 06). Here Gauguin spent nearly four months recuperating after his "broken leg" incident. The EUR16 (pounds 10) menu is the equal of many Parisian restaurants.

What "broken leg" incident?

Gauguin had developed a penchant for dark-skinned women long before he moved to the South Pacific; one of the most memorable was a young, mixed- race woman whom he met in Paris, known as Annah "la Javanaise". Prone to walking round Brittany with her pet monkey on her shoulder, Annah became a figure of mirth among children.

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