Just prior to his departure for Pont-Aven in late January or early February of 1888, Gauguin wrote to his wife Mette: "...in Brittany, where I have been once, I intend to work 7-8 months on the trot, suffused with the character of the people and the land, an essential precondition of good painting... You must remember I am two people rolled into one, there is the Indian in me as well as the sensitive man. The sensitive part of my character has gone for good allowing the Indian to walk steadily and straight ahead" (quoted in Corréspondance de Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1984, letter no. 139). Gauguin made his first visit to this small fishing village (fig. 1) in Brittany in July 1886, in search of a place where he could devote himself fully to painting without the distractions of urban life and family obligations. Before Gauguin's arrival there, the western region of France, with its indigenous language and ancient cultural traditions, had captured the imagination of his contemporaries. For Maurice Barrès, Brittany was synonymous with organic continuity and French cultural purity, a region where "the Gallic rooster was never tarnished by Roman dust" (M. Barrès, "L'Art Breton," Le Voltaire, Aug. 26, 1886; quoted in R. Brettell, The Art of Paul Gauguin, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 55). For others it was a land of rich green meadows, picturesque villages, and ancient superstitions--the living embodiment of a primitive French spirit.
Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven with heavy cultural baggage. The Brittany he sought was a site of phantasmic projections; the land he actually encountered had been colonized and transformed by waves of French and foreign artists before him. Precisely for this reason, Gauguin's investment in the myth of the uncorrupted beauty and primitive simplicity of Brittany may be described as a discursive practice through which he fashioned his own artistic and cultural identity. As Abigail Solomon Godeau reminds us:
...no less mythically important than the things escaped are the things sought--the earthly paradise, its plentitude, its pleasure, its alluring and compliant female bodies. To admirers of Gauguin during his lifetime and the period immediately after...Gauguin's voyage of life was perceived in both the most literal and gratifying symbolic sense as a voyage even further outward, to the periphery and margins, to what lies outside the parameters of the superego and the polis. On a biographical level, then, Gauguin's life provides the paradigm for primitivism as a white, Western and preponderantly male quest for an elusive object whose very condition of desirability resides in some form of distance and difference, whether temporal or geographical. (A. Solomon Godeau, "Going Native," Art in America, July, 1989, p. 120)
Gauguin's Brittany, no less than his Tahiti, exists only in the flattened space of two dimensions.
Nature morte aux coloquintes of 1889 is staged within this theater of cultural difference. Painted in the new synthesist manner Gauguin had developed in Pont-Aven a year earlier--characterized by flat planes of high-keyed color bounded by strong outlines, formal alliteration, and an emphasis on surface patterning and overall decorative rhythm--the painting is also a synthesis of disparate cultural traditions: Western and non-Western, "primitive" and modern. On a circular metal table of the type found in cafés and bistros throughout France, Gauguin assembled the protagonists of a rural drama: a group of apples carefully choreographed to an undulating compositional rhythm, a single shiny green apple, and a red stoneware jar that is composed of the very substance that has sustained this humble offering. The stoneware vessel is a particularly meaningful inclusion, given Gauguin's work in ceramics at this time. In June 1886 he was introduced by the engraver Félix Bracquemond to the ceramist Ernest Chaplet, with whom he collaborated on a number of early works (fig. 2). Soon, however, Gauguin was using the medium to produce an innovative series of elaborately sculpted objects (fig. 3)--portrait vases, jugs, and jardinières--that were inspired by inventive designs of native Peruvian pottery rather than by the elite tradition of Sèvres porcelain, which he despised. Clay was Gauguin's material link with an ancient past uncontaminated by centuries of social "progress," the original matter, he believed, from which man and civilization both sprang. "Ceramic making is not a futile pursuit," Gauguin wrote in 1889. "During the earliest periods of history, the American Indians frequently made use of this art. God made man with a bit of clay--with a bit of clay, one can make metal and precious stones, with a little clay and a little genius" (P. Gauguin, "Notes sur l'art à l'Exposition Universelle," Le Moderniste, July 4, 1889, p. 84).
Like his perception of Brittany, Gauguin's experience of ceramic sculpture was mediated by the intersection of competing cultural discourses. Chaplet himself had become interested in stoneware under the influence of Japanese ceramics, an age-old medium linked to a venerable national tradition. Gauguin was no exception. In Nature morte aux oignons, past and present, East and West, are poised in tension. Along the right edge of the painting a Japanese print (or perhaps a screen) representing a figure appears to intrude upon the scene, disturbing the otherwise prosaic iconography of rural domesticity in the painting. Gauguin, it should be noted, did not invent this conceit: van Gogh had employed the same strategy in his Portrait de Père Tanguy of 1887 (fig. 4). (The artist's work was well known to Gauguin, who had visited Vincent in Arles in the autumn of 1888, and was in regular contact with Theo van Gogh.) The sinuous contours of the objects on the table are in turn matched by the linear definition of the figure's facial features, and the stem of the apple on the far right appears to merge with the figure's arm. In this way, Gauguin establishes a network of bridges between the animate and the inanimate, flatness and depth, the Western still life and Eastern visual traditions, and nature and artifice (however much logic tells us that the figure exists within the space of painting--an image within an image--it also appears to preside over the scene of representation with the watchful eyes of a guardian spirit).
Gauguin deliberately holds these oppositions in a delicate balance, just as he does in two other roughly contemporaneous compositions. In Fête Gloanec of 1888 (fig. 5), Gauguin employs a bird's eye view of the surface of the table top which radically collapses the space of the painting. As shadow is largely supressed, a flat field of intense red hue defines both the surface of the painting and the table top, lending unity to the dispersed objects and holding them in place. In Le jambon of 1889 (fig. 6), in which the metal table of the present picture again appears, the background wallpaper forms the uncompromising structure of a grid, locking the oval table top onto the frontal plane of the painting. A series of visual rhymes is also established between the orange ground, the marblized surface of the ham, and the pockets of space created by the legs of the table.
All three paintings bear witness to Gauguin's sustained interest in the work of Paul Cézanne, whose Compotier, verre et pommes (Nature morte au compotier) of 1880 (fig. 7) he owned. In June 1888, at a time of considerable financial hardship, Gauguin refused an offer of 300 francs for the painting, commenting to his friend Schuffenecker: "It's the apple of my eye, and except in case of dire necessity, I'll keep it until my last shirt's gone" (quoted in I. Cahn, "Chronology," in exh. cat., Cézanne, Grand Palais, Paris, 1995-1996, p. 547). Such was Gauguin's admiration for the painter from Aix that when he was in the mood to paint a still-life he is reported to have said to Paul Sérusier, "Let's do a Cézanne!" (quoted in C. Chassé, Gauguin et son temps, Paris, 1955, p. 50). Not only did Gauguin borrow Cézanne's compositional strategies--raising the horizon line and tilting the picture plane slightly forward--but so did Cézanne show him how to carve out an illusion of depth through color modulation rather than tonal modeling. In his Notes Synthétiques of circa 1888, Gauguin observed:
They reprove our colors which we put [unmixed] side by side. In this domain we are perforce victorious, since we are powerfully helped by nature which does not proceed otherwise. A green next to a red does not produce a reddish brown, like the mixture [of pigments], but two vibrating tones. If you put chrome yellow next to this red, you have three tones complementing each other and augmenting the intensity of the first tone: the green. Replace the yellow by a blue, you will find three different tones, though still vibrating through one another. If instead of the blue you apply violet, the result will be a single tone, but a composite one, belonging to the reds.
The combinations are unlimited. (Quoted in H. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 63)
Contemporary painting and Japanese prints, ancient stoneware pottery and modern sculpture, Paris and the Breton landscape: Gauguin's cultural synthesis spanned a temporal arc between an irretrievable past and the conflicting interests of his own historical moment.