Synthetism (1889-1893)
Barbizon school







Synthetism Artistic movement consummating the break with Impressionism. Rotonchamp, Gauguin's first biographer, defined" synthesis" as: " An intentional simplification of line, forms and colours in order to give maximum expressive intensity by suppressing everything capable of lessening the impact." Thus the break with Impressionism was effected with a thoroughness which both Cezanne and Seurat had tried to avoid, preferring to betray Impressionism by extrapolation. Synthetism, on the contrary, inverts therelationship between painting and reality: the painter uses nature, rather than obeying it. To what end? To what is Rotonchamp referring when he talks of " maximum intensity"? Here the Symbolist viewpoint, much more explicitly defined by that speculative soul Emile Bernard, admittedly influenced by his friend Aurier, than it ever was by Gauguin, intervenes: nature was not to be used for confessional purposes; instead its quintessence was to be distilled through the power of the artist's imagination. Hence Bernard wrote: "Because an idea consists of things collected by the imagination, a painter should not paint the object in front of him, but should seek to recapture it in the mental image he has collectedfor the memory does not retain everything, only what is striking. So, colours and shapes become uniformly simplified. By painting from memory, I have the advantage of abolishing the useless complexity of form and tone. Each line resumes its geometrical and architectural value, each colour its prismatic colour category." Here were the beginnings of decorative art and pure colour fifteen years before Fauvism. Nevertheless, the Synthetism of 1888 had a philosophical background-a brand of visionary Platonism - which dictated its individuality of style. As Aurier stated towards the end of an important article devoted to Gauguin -almost a manifesto of the new trend in art: " A work of art ought logically to be (a) idealistic, because its sole aim is the expression of the idea; (b) symbolic, because it expresses this idea in forms; (c) synthetic, because it traces these forms according to generally understood signs; (d) subjective, because the object is never treated as a plain object but as the manifestation of an idea perceived by the subject; and (e) decorative, for truly decorative art, as the Egyptians understood it, is neither more nor less than a subjective, synthetic, symbolic and ideal manifestation of art." In fact the Synthetists never took the amazing liberties with the exterior world that the early 20thcentury painters permitted themselves, precisely because that world, for those able to see and transpose it, already contained the ideal. It was necessary to abstract the idea from the exterior world and simplify it-for, as Bernard put it: "Anything superfluous in a scene veils that scene with a reality which claims our visual attention, rather than our soul"and therefore summarise it in its own sense and according to its own harmonious reality, in a word to stylise it, or, as Gauguin said, distil an "abstraction" from it. With Gauguin, therefore, the plastic never took sole command, but was always linked to the emotive significance of the scene represented. In return this significance could transform a representation and complete it by adding new symbolic elements: hence Gauguin's Lutte de Jacob avec L'Ange depicts, in one sweep, the Breton woman coming out of Mass as well as the vision they have before them of an episode narrated in the sermon they have just heard.




Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, 1888

Charles Laval, Going to Market, Brittany, 1888

Emile Bernard, Breton Women in the Meadow, August 1888

Louis Anquetin, Reading Woman, 1890

Paul Sérusier, The Talisman (with the forest landscape of love in Pont-Aven) , 1888