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Monday, July 29, 2013

Emile Bernard

Women in the Meadow (le Pardon de Pont-Aven), 1888, Emile Bernard. The content came from Gauguin. The style was his own, sometimes termed Synthetism or Cloisionnism, as seen in the dark outlines and the simplification or elimination of tradition modeling.

Self-portrait with Portrait of Gauguin,
 1888, Emile Bernard
Art styles and movements throughout the centuries are fairly easy to understand, progressing more or less in a linear manner from cave painting (up or down, take your pick) through to Impressionism. There are some curves in this continuum of artistic development, particular in the area of painting, but for the most part, it's pretty straight forward. Then, came the year 1888 and the passing of Impressionism from cutting edge into "old hat." Okay, that's a bit strong, but you get the idea. This period came to be called Post-impressionism. The catchall term itself is an attempt by critics and art historians to simplify it all. The problem is, it oversimplifies, and in so doing, muddies the water further. What happened after Impressionism lost it's luster (insofar as artist were concerned, at least) was neither simple nor simplifiable. What happened was Modern Art.

Self-portrait, (les Miserables),
1888, Paul Gauguin. That's a
sketch of Emile Bernard
in the upper right corner.
Emile Bernard was a key figure in the birth of Modern Art. He, himself, was born in 1868, about the same time as Monet and a couple others began daubing away on the banks of the Seine, giving birth to the Impressionist movement. That would make him a young man of twenty when he met separately, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, the same-sex parents of the bastard art movement inadequately dubbed Post-impressionism. The year, 1888, was the year during which van Gogh and Gauguin co-habituated in Arles, in the south of France, for a mere two months (October though December). This pairing was every bit as significant as that of Braque and Picasso some thirty years later, though briefer and a good deal more tumultuous. Bernard had as much to do with the birth of modern art as either van Gogh or Gauguin, not so much in what he painted, but for what he wrote about what he (and they) painted. Though some twenty years older than Bernard, Paul Gauguin not only admired his work, but admired even more the fact that the young man could express himself so easily regarding the truly new art he, Gauguin, and van Gogh were starting to create. 

Breton Women and Children, 1888,
Vincent van Gogh's watercolor copy
after Bernard's Pardon at Pont-Aven
Nowhere is this tri-partite relationship more fascinating than in their exchange of portraits. Vincent wrote his young friend, Emile, asking for a portrait of Paul. Perhaps because of their age differences, Emile did not feel up to the task. What Vincent got was a self-portrait of Bernard with a sketch of Gauguin tacked up on the wall behind him. Vincent was delighted, nonetheless. Vincent was, no doubt, doubly delight when, a short time later, Paul returned the gesture, sending Vincent a self-portrait with a sketch of Emile tacked up on the wall in the background. When Paul eventually joined Vincent in Arles later that year, he came packing a work by Emile which so impressed Vincent he made a watercolor copy (above) to send to his brother, Theo, in Paris. Actually Emile's painting, Pardon at Pont Aven (top) , though not a copy, was heavily influenced by Paul's now famous Vision After the Sermon (below) from earlier that year.
The Vision after the Sermon, 1888, Paul Gauguin's painting
which so inspired Bernard and van Gogh
Thus, modern art had a rather promiscuous conception. Its "DNA" contains strains of Divisionism, Pointillism, Symbolism, Cloisonnism, Synthetism, even something called Neo-impressionism (whatever that might be). Emile Bernard was not only familiar with all these branches of the Impressionism family tree, he embraced and painted many of them. Most importantly he wrote about them--nearly two dozen books, articles, and essays on the subject, and that's not counting the dozens of letters he wrote over the next half-century to, not just his friends, Vincent and Paul, but to Cezanne, Redon, Apollinaire, and others in which he expressed himself quite clearly and eloquently on having been part of the birth of modern art. If you've ever looked at a piece of 20th century Modern Art and wondered: "WHAT were they thinking?" Read Bernard. Never once does he refer to Post-impressionism.

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