Paul Gaugin’s The Yellow Christ
Griselda Pollock argued that for avant-garde art to be successful, or for an avant-garde/modern artist to more successfully stand-out, a three-fold path be followed: reference, deference, and difference. The gist of Pollock’s ideology is that an artist needs to be aware of the norm, utilize techniques of the ‘other’ (the norm’s opposition), and finally use that information to produce works of art that are different, and embody/celebrate that difference. There are a couple of ways that Gauguin’s Yellow Christ achieves this.
Yellow Christ is an avant-garde piece that uses subject matter familiar to the academic art world: landscape and religious themes (more specifically, Crucifixion). That’s not to say that this work is in the academic style. The avant-garde Impressionists sought to elevate the concept of an artist expressing original ideas and original thought, and here the face of Christ is thought to be a self-likeness of Gauguin himself. Here then, the symbol of Christ is not meant to evoke an image of self-sacrifice for human salvation, but rather a man being persecuted for revolutionary or original thought going against the majority of society. Gaugin, and other avant-garde artists of the time, felt persecuted (or at least shunned) by the bourgeoisie academic art world. By using subject matter familiar to his audience (the art community) he is “referencing” what he stands against: academic art institution. Next, he alludes to the current opposition (opposition of academic art) by utilizing the abstract (non-naturalistic) and expressive style of the current avant-garde. The large blocks of color create a flattened space much-like Bernard or Antequin (who exhibited with Gauguin) as do the bold outlines on the figures. I think that by using familiar subject matter, the differences between the academic and the avant-garde are more highlighted; like Marie Camille’s idea, the artist is providing an ideal future for the art world, kind of like “Look, this is how it should be done”.
Gauguin was also captivated by the concept of the primitive, and this piece is no exception in pointing that out. The scene takes place in a rural setting (Brittany) and features women dressed in traditional clothing. To Gauguin, the people and town of Brittany were primitive. Seen outside of Gauguin’s self-indulgent, modern male artist lenses, the town of Brittany was not an especially primitive place, but nevertheless, he became fascinated with this town. For him, Brittany represented the opposite of the academic Impressionist’s Paris. This fascination with primitivism fits in with Pollock’s ideas. The Post-Impressionist’s identify the academic patrons of Paris’ Impressionism as the bourgeois, and in their attempt to seperate themselves from the demands and expectations of bourgeois patrons they seek refugee in rural, “primitive” locations. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, it is easy to see this black and white relationship the Post-Impressionists have with the academic Impressionists.