Les dindons, Pont-Aven was painted in 1888, during Paul Gauguin's second long stay in the Breton town. This period was to become one of the most important in the career, the life and indeed the legend of Gauguin. It was during this stay that he and Emile Bernard in particular consolidated the ideas of Synthetism that were to come to have such an influence on so many artists both at the time and afterwards. It was in 1888 that Paul Sérusier, visiting Gauguin, would paint his celebrated Talisman under the older master's influence, taking it back to show his friends in Paris and resulting in the foundation of the Nabis. And it was in 1888 that Gauguin's correspondence with Vincent van Gogh reached its peak, leading to his famous, short-lived move to Arles at the end of the year during which the Dutch painter famously cut off a part of his ear.
When he moved to Pont-Aven, Gauguin had recently returned from his travels in Martinique. His constant quests for a place and a culture savage, primal and authentic would lead him subsequently to Tahiti and the Marquesas. During 1888, though, he sought out these qualities in an area far closer to home: Brittany. Just as Van Gogh had found a more readily available version of the Japan that he so adored in the South of France, so the idiosyncrasies and isolation of Brittany were perfectly suited to Gauguin, who remembered his own trip to Pont-Aven two years earlier. In 1888, as before, the artist headed there and booked into the Pension Gloanec. However, where during his first stay the town and the hotel had been filled with artists, on this occasion he found the place almost deserted. This, combined with illness and bad weather, meant that it took him some time to find his stride there. However, by February he was able to write with clear enthusiasm to his friend and disciple Emile Schuffenecker:
'I am living in silent contemplation of nature, devoting myself entirely to my art. Without that there is no salvation, and it is the best means of keeping physical pain at bay. In that way, I acquire the strength to live without too much bitterness for my fellows.
'I like Brittany, I find a certain wildness and primitiveness here. When my clogs resound on this granite soil, I hear the dull, matt, powerful tone I am looking for in my painting' (Paul Gauguin, February 1888, quoted in B. Thomson (ed.), Gauguin by himself, London, 1998, p. 84).
Soon, as the seasons changed, the artistic community returned to Pont-Aven, many of the visitors coming in order to see what Gauguin was doing and to learn from him directly. His time abroad combined with his immersion in Brittany, an area where the recent extension of the rail network had done little to introduce industrialisation (or, another advantage for the artists, high prices). Here, people still wore the local costume. The language, the look and the feel of the place remained somehow at a distance, alien to French speakers, Celtic, and therefore as close as possible, within the confines of France, to the elusive ideal of 'primitivism' that so obsessed Gauguin. Against the backdrop of this unique, resistant culture, at a distance from modernity, and within the wild and rocky landscape, Gauguin was able to tap into his own savagery and fill his paintings such as Les dindons, Pont-Aven with a sense of bold colour and raw life.
In Les dindons, Pont-Aven, nature makes a strange appearance in the form of the non-native turkeys in the foreground, depicted milling around, black against the incredibly rich green with which Gauguin has rendered the grass. The natural peculiarities of the landscape feature in this picture in the form of the strange vast rocks shown in the river to the right; these striking features are the Chaos du Poche-Menu in the river Aven and may well have intrigued the artist, as they continue to fascinate artists and photographers to this day. In the background is the town itself, with the steeple of its church in evidence, the hill Roz-an-Bidou behind it.
In Les dindons, Pont-Aven, Gauguin has used a feathered style of brushstroke that he may have owed to Paul Cézanne, whose works he adored, studied, sometimes imitated and where possible collected. At the same time, the brushwork appears to pay tribute to the Impressionists, the artists with whom Gauguin had been associated for some time and whose pioneering attitudes to painting had provided a form of springboard to Synthetism. Gauguin collected a range of works by the Impressionists, not least his former mentor Pissarro, and may also have seen Monet's own 1877 painting of white turkeys, which had been exhibited to some acclaim at the Third Impressionist Exhibition.
In Les dindons, Pont-Aven the influence of the Impressionists can be seen to have been significant as a starting point, as the palette and indeed the overall effect of the vivid colours in this scene show the increasing importance of that Synthetism within Gauguin's work. Rather than slavishly imitate or translate the view before him, Gauguin has clearly adapted the scene to his own purposes and indeed feelings. The outward appearance of the various elements has been captured, but so too has some of Gauguin's own emotional state in creating this work. And added to this is a clear emphasis on composition, on the formal implications of the forms and the colours, as is evident in the portrayal of the Cézanne-like trees and the bursts of pink and slightly unnatural green in the palette. Indeed, one can see the clear cousinship between Les dindons, Pont-Aven and Sérusier's Talisman. Gauguin's words to his fellow artist Van Gogh, written in September of the same year that Les dindons, Pont-Aven was painted, provide a clear insight into the painter's sensitivities and also to his intentions in his pictures:
'Yes, you are right to want painting to have a colouring evocative of poetic ideas, and in that sense I agree with you, although with one difference. I am not acquainted with any poetic ideas-- I'm probably missing a sense. I find everything poetic, and it is in the deepest recesses of my heart, that are sometimes mysterious, that I glimpse poetry. Forms and colours brought into harmony produce poetry by themselves' (Paul Gauguin, September 1888, quoted in ibid., p. 90).
This was a development that would become increasingly pronounced during that year. Gauguin would increasingly use the world around him as a form of prompt, while creating works that were sometimes based on dreams, visions or the imagination. His belief in the need for a new understanding of colour was shared passionately by Van Gogh, and it was in part this that led to Gauguin's move to Arles at the end of the year, financed by the Dutch painter's brother Theo. While the trip may have ended in disaster, it was a landmark in the development of a new form of painting that introduced a revolutionary expressiveness, as is evident in Les dindons, Pont-Aven.