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Paul Gaugin’s The Yellow Christ

May 2, 2012

 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. 




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  1. I like that you brought up the idea of the “Other” in relation to difference. The “Other” exists as the opposite of the norm – although it is ironic that it is the dominant ideology (or “norm”) which determines who is an “Other.”

    It’s interesting to think about how avant-garde artists like Gauguin are wanting to define themselves as “Others.” These artists have noticed what constitutes a “norm” or “Other” in society, and are conscientiously embracing the “Other-ness.” It’s also a little ironic that these European, avant-garde artists are defining themselves as “Others,” while at the same time also highlighting the non-Western “Other” in their primitive art!

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. Hemmy Jung permalink

    As you mentioned, the bold outlines made this painting more flat also bold outline divided the landscapes and figures. I like how Gauguin used the colors in his painting. I think that using extreme yellow is very creative.

  3. I find it interesting that Gauguin used such bright colors to depict the crucifixion. This is generally seen as a dark and dreadful event but he paints it with very bright yellows and oranges which gives it a “happier” feel to it.

  4. LarsVolta permalink

    You mention that the face of this particular Christ might have likeness to Gauguin. I find it interesting that in a number of his paintings he is said to be seen or shown, but always in some religious context. In his true self portrait he gives himself a halo, In Jacob Wrestling with Angels he is said to be the clergy member at the bottom right and now is imprinting his likeness on Christ. I wonder if he was making his connections to religion or attempting to make some other opposing comment.

  5. brian Johnson permalink

    I love how gaugin uses such bold colors and really makes us think about what we are looking at. These colors are so happy, yet this horrible thing is happening, and how he isn’t paying attention to time or place, because jesus being nailed to the cross happened no where near britany. I also personally like how he always seems to incorporate some kind of religious thing into most of his paintings, whilst trying to keep up with the times.

  6. Klaj permalink


    I am studing possible relationship between this picture and the one from a slovak artist Janko Alexy: Kristus (V kostole), painted around 1931. The question is: Could he saw this Gaugains painting, when he was in Paris in 1921? My research leads to Paul Rosenberg Paris collection, where the painting was “at least since 1930…” Where it was before, who owned this painting in 1921 is unknown. Can you please find out, where could it have been exposed, which gallery, at least possible links that lead to Paris 1921?

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