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Europe 1800 - 1900

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Gauguin, The Red Cow

Paul Gauguin, The Red Cow, 1889, oil on canvas (LACMA) Note: Despite my saying that the cypress trees suggest this canvas may have been painted in the south, it was painted in Le Pouldu near Pont-Aven in Brittany (SZ). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) Male voiceover: We're at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and we're looking at a painting by Paul Gauguin, The Red Cow from 1889. It's a really wild painting. Female voiceover: It is a wild painting. There is a woman in the left corner with a jug Male voiceover: Very near. Female voiceover: Right, at the very fore-end . She's moving toward the left edge of the image of the frame and she's cut off. Male voiceover: Is moving the opposite direction. Female voiceover: His head is cut off. Male voiceover: She's moving off to the left and our attention looks to her first, but then she's sort of moving off stage in a very distracting kind of way. Then, the cow is also presumably moving slightly to the right. There's a small dog that seems to be ... Female voiceover: Kind of chasing it. Male voiceover: ... chasing the cow. Female voiceover: Then, there's a kind of fence and a hedge behind them, flocking them into the foreground. Male voiceover: Right, which has it's own careful attention. There's a wonderful kind of contrast of color between the orange pink red of the cow ... Female voiceover: Cow and the green grass. Male voiceover: ... and the brilliant green. Then, in the foreground, all the colors of the cow can be seen in the flowers, which are really delicately painted for a Gauguin. Female voiceover: Really delicate, yeah. Male voiceover: Very unusual. Again, are in the bodice of the woman who is bending forward towards us, Female voiceover: The orange again. Male voiceover: Yeah, holding that pitcher and her eyes are delicately ... Female voiceover: Then, those lovely purples against the orange. Male voiceover: They're gorgeous. Female voiceover: He's so thinking about complementary colors here. Male voiceover: Yeah, he is. It's so obvious. Male voiceover: He really is. There's a lot of drawing in here. I mean, look at the delicacy of the light on her face as she bends down and the shadow and reflected color. Female voiceover: It's interesting that you say light, because in some ways there's light in this painting and in some ways there isn't, to me. It's not atmospheric at all. Male voiceover: That's true. This is not the light of the impressionist, not at all. Female voiceover: No. There is light and you can sort of say, there is sunlight in this landscape and there is sunlight hitting the face ... Male voiceover: And shadows as well. Female voiceover: ... and shadow. But, there's no sense of atmosphere. Male voiceover: What happens is, the light seems to be located, almost the way the color is, as a pooled area that is not necessarily a result of clouds and sun ... Female voiceover: No. Male voiceover: ... but seems to almost generate from the object itself. Female voiceover: The forms themselves, yeah. Male voiceover: It's almost in a kind of pre-renaissance style. Female voiceover: Right. Male voiceover: In that light is ... Female voiceover: Whether or not they knew about the way that light actually looks yet. Yeah, it reflects and moves. Male voiceover: That's right. Female voiceover: He's clearly trying to transcend, I think, those kinds of naturalist effects, to say something a little bit more serious and a little bit more spiritual and a little bit more meaningful. Male voiceover: I think the spiritual is absolutely intentional here. I think he's running into some problems, because the subject itself is so aestheticized, it's so laden with the tradition of the landscape. Female voiceover: Yeah. Male voiceover: You've got this really beautiful kind of aesthetic quality. If you look at the field just beyond the fence, the middle ground, you have this very light pool of light green and purple and orange. Female voiceover: Greens and oranges and those fabulous [unintelligible]. Male voiceover: They really are. It's almost a wash, as if it was a kind of watercolor. Male voiceover: Of course there are two men there. Female voiceover: Very thinly kind of applied. Male voiceover: Two farm workers, it looks like they're just ... Female voiceover: Tilling the field with a scythe. Male voiceover: With a scythe, yeah. Then above that, these very elegant Cypress trees. Which makes me think that this might be ... Female voiceover: The clouds. Male voiceover: ... when he's down in the South of France. Female voiceover: But you know, the latest trees become very abstracted, these just vertical forms and then the clouds are also just these very simple shapes. Again, really nothing atmospheric about the clouds in the sky and the flat blue color of the sky. There is something very kind of transcendent ... Male voiceover: It's true. Female voiceover: ... about landscape, that conflicts for me. Maybe this is sort of what he was going for. Male voiceover: Specificity of the ... Female voiceover: The sort of everydayness of the scene in the foreground, with the woman in the picture, which sort of reminds me of Vermeer, and the cow. Then, this landscape that is somehow kind of magical. Male voiceover: We see that division in Gauguin's work. If you think about Jacob wrestling with an angel, ... Female voiceover: Exactly. Male voiceover: You have that very clear division by the bough of the tree, where you have the spiritual displaced from the physical, the actual [unintelligible] of the space, which we inhabit. We're a part of that ... the area that's on this side of the fence. Female voiceover: He's clearly divided these two areas. Male voiceover: Yeah, he has. It's a pretty wonderful painting. Female voiceover: Yeah. (upbeat piano music)