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Nature and Abstraction

Roderic O’Conor, "Sunlight through a Cloud," 1893, etching, Gift of Samuel Josefowitz in tribute to Bret Waller and Ellen Lee, 1998.258

The Synthetist prints currently on view in Nature and Abstraction in Pont-Aven School Prints approach traditional landscape subjects with the stylistic freedom and experimentation characteristic of the innovative spirit of the Pont-Aven School. This group formed around Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard in the 1880s and 1890s in the French province of Brittany, where the rugged landscape and the colorful traditions of the people served as an inspiration. They called their style Synthetism, a term derived from the French verb synthétiser, to synthesize or combine.

The Synthetist style attempted to create a new approach that questioned traditional naturalistic representation. Synthetist artists sought to combine the appearance of natural forms with the artist’s emotional response to the subject and aesthetic considerations of line, color, and form.  Although nature served as their starting point, the artists viewed their subject through a veil of distortion in order to express a certain mood.

Maxime Maufra, "The Wave," 1894, etching and aquatint, Gift of Samuel Josefowitz in tribute to Bret Waller and Ellen Lee, 1998.273

While Synthetist paintings utilize color to establish compositional harmony and rhythm, in printmaking the artists turned to the use of line and wash to create the desired effects of decorative patterning and ambiguous space.

Armand Seguin, "Firs above the River," about 1892, etching and aquatint, Gift of Samuel Josefowitz in tribute to Bret Waller and Ellen Lee, 1998.218

The Synthetists embraced traditional printmaking techniques that had fallen out of favor with artists due to the recent mechanical nature of print production. Synthetist printmakers countered this critique by emphasizing the hand-crafted aspects of printmaking, experimenting with the possibilities presented by different materials and techniques. In fact, many of the prints of the Pont-Aven School are extremely rare, printed in only a few proofs. Focusing on the technical possibilities of the medium, the printmakers explored the full range of expressive potential in lithography, zincography, etching, aquatint, and woodcuts.

Armand Seguin, "Breton Decoration– Breton Women by the Sea," about 1894, etching, aquatint, and sugar-lift aquatint, Gift of Samuel Josefowitz in tribute to Bret Waller and Ellen Lee, 1998.242

The prints included in Nature and Abstraction reveal the Synthetist printmakers’ experimentation with formal abstraction as a means of moving away from the traditional naturalistic depictions of landscape. They focus on the landscape of Brittany, not to evoke the exotic and picturesque aspects that initially attracted the artists to the region, but to explore the expressive forms that were possible in the medium of printmaking. Synthetist art does not reach the extent of fully abandoning the representational subject, but rather embraces abstraction in a manner that simplifies the subject.

Nature and Abstraction in Pont-Aven School Prints contains works from the Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-Aven in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It is on view in the Jane H. Fortune Gallery through February, 2012.

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One Response to “Nature and Abstraction”

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    I’ll have to come and check these out in person. I’ve always loved Gauguin, it’s nice to learn more about some of his less well-known contemporaries.

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