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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, or Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, or Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1888, oil on canvas, 2' 4 3/4" x 3' 1/2" (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris 

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Male: We're looking at Paul Gauguin's Vision after the Sermon, Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, from 1888. It's wildly, vividly colored Gauguin is doing, I think, one of the most interesting things here by allowing color to function in a purely abstract way. Female: The idea of freeing color from the natural world and using color expressively and separating the painting from having to be a mirror of reality, which it had been since the Renaissance. Male: Not only is the red vivid and powerful, there's this wrestling match going on between Jacob with the yellow wings, who seems to be getting poor Jacob in a kind of headlock. Not only do you have the sense of the red equated in some way with violence, but the red is powerful and it's forcing itself forward. Female: The flattening of space, which of course he's also getting from Japanese prints. Male: In fact, that Japanese print is referred to in a very explicit way by that wonderful tree trunk which diagonally divides the canvas. Female: I remember Gauguin talking about not wanting the painting to look real; to bring it back to a sense of the visionary and the spiritual, so he repressed the use of shadows, for example, and lots of other techniques that were used since the Renaissance to create a convincing illusion of reality. Male: In fact in a letter to Van Gogh, his friend, he would write that his paintings of this time were abstract. We don't look at a painting like this and think of it as abstract, but by that I think he meant the refusal of the modulation of light and shadow. Female: Gauguin is in Brittany. Male: Which is in the northwest of France over by the coast. Female: An area that's rugged and difficult weather. There was an artist's colony there, but Gauguin went there very much to separate himself from the life of the city and modern Parisian culture, and to find something that was more true, more uncivilized, closer to some kind of original human nature. Male: This is coming out of the Enlightenment. This is Rousseau's philosophy of natural man. This is Gauguin completely inventing. We're seeing these women who are in their traditional headdresses as if this was the 17th or 18th century. It would be almost like us going to Wyoming and on a day that they have rodeo, everybody's got their cowboy hat on, and thinking that that's the way people dress all the time, with chaps, as if it was 100 years earlier. It's completely invented. Female: But the point he's making is a very interesting one, ultimately, I think. He's got the peasants in the foreground. Their eyes are closed. They seem to be turned inward. What's interesting about this painting is it's not a religious painting. It's not a biblical subject. It's not just Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a painting about people having a religious experience. Male: That religious experience is then separated from their world by that tree, which separates the spiritual realm from the physical realm. Female: It's really a spectator religious painting; a painting where we watch other people be religious. I think that Gauguin identified a modern dilemma, which is that it's very hard to have the same relationship with the spiritual that human beings had before the Modern Industrial Era. I think he feels a nostalgia and longing for what he imagines is a more direct spiritual experience. Male: So this is a strategy, actually a very sophisticated strategy, for bringing that kind of religious imagery that was embedded in the Medieval, and the Renaissance, even in the Baroque, now into the Modern world. (jazzy music)