Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

9 From Gauguin and Van Gogh to
Classicism

Maurice Denis

The great gust of wind that gave new life to French art in about 1890 blew from the shop of père Tanguy, a colour merchant on the rue Clauzel and from the auberge Gloanec at Pont-Aven [...]

Bernard, Van Gogh, Anquetin, Toulouse-Lautrec were rebels from the Cormon studio; we, that is Bonnard, Ibels, Ranson, Denis, grouped round Sérusier, were the rebels of the Julian studio. Sympathetic to everything that seemed new and subversive, we were drawn to them, as they were making a clean sweep not only of academic teaching but also, and above all, of naturalism, whether romantic or photographic, which was then universally accepted as the only theory worthy of an age of science and democracy. We met at the first shows of the Indépendants, where the influence of Seurat and Signac was already making itself felt.

To the boldnesses of the Impressionists and the divisionists, the newcomers added an awkwardness of execution and an almost caricatural simplification of form: and that was symbolism. The syntheses of the Japanese decorators were not enough to satisfy our demand for simplification. Primitive or oriental idols, Breton calvaries, 'images d'Epinal', figures from tapestry and stained glass, all these were mingled with recollections of Daumier, with the awkward Poussinesque style of Cézanne's Bathers, with the clumsy peasant subjects of Pissarro. For those who witnessed the 1890 movement, there are no surprises left: the most absurd, the most incomprehensible efforts of the artists now known as the 'Fauves' can do no more than re-awaken our memories of the extravagances of our own generation [...]

No doubt there had been preparations for the new wave of 1890. These artists whose appearance caused a scandal were products of their time and their circumstances; it would be unjust to isolate them from their elders, the Impressionists: in particular it seems that Camille Pissarro had a considerable influence on them. Besides, one couldn't reproach them for failing to recognize their immediate predecessors; from the outset they showed the greatest respect for the artists who had set them on the right track: not only Camille Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas and Odilon Redon, but also Puvis de Chavannes whose official honours might easily have been off-putting to their youthful intransigence. Thus they were the necessary outcome — action and reaction combined — of the great Impressionist movement. Everything has been said on this subject: the absence of all rules, the ineptitude of academic teaching, the triumph of naturalism and the influence of Japanese art had caused the joyous birth of an art which appeared to be free from all constraint. The new motifs of sunlight, artificial lighting and the whole picturesqueness of modern

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Source: L'Occident, May 1909, translated by Belinda Thomson.

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