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Paul Gauguin - Jacob wrestling with the angel

by Alexandra Tuschka

Some women, in Breton costume, pave the lower and left edges of the picture. They wear white bonnets and simple black dresses. Several of them can be seen from behind and occupy almost the entire lower half of the picture. Two ladies, both with their eyes closed, also border the work on either side. Other ladies have their hands folded in prayer. In the background they are increasingly abstracted, so that we can only make out the body language there, but not the facial expressions. Only one woman has opened her eyes and is looking at the scene on the right. We as viewers also become part of this gathering and see a man struggling with an angel. Both are barefoot, the angel is momentarily superior. A tree runs diagonally through the picture and also separates it compositionally. Its green crown expands broadly at the upper edge of the picture. Another cow has strayed to the left. It is much smaller than the women next to it. No shadow obscures the scene.

The battle to which we inevitably turn our attention comes from the Book of Genesis from 32:23:

23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.

24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.

25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.

26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

The Hebrew name "Isreal" translated means "God fights". The alternative title of the painting, "Vision After the Sermons", can now also help us with the interpretation. Here we see the biblical theme of Jacob's fight with the angel, but not filling the picture. Rather, we see the spiritual experience of the women expressed, who imagine the struggle after a sermon on this theme. A letter from the artist to his friend Van Gogh says: "For me, the landscape and the struggle exist only in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon". There are different interpretations of this biblical episode: is the artist a dream figure, a prophetic vision, an angel, Jesus, God Himself or "The Good" in persona? Gauguin's position here is too ambiguous.

The painting was created in an artists' colony in Pont-Aven in Brittany. After living in Paris for a while, Gauguin was drawn to the harsher surroundings, as the people there lived more naturally and originally. The cow running through the picture supports this rural impression. It was in Brittany that the painter met Émile Bernard in 1888. His style, which was influenced by Japanese art, also inspired Gauguin, whom the Impressionist approaches could not sufficiently satisfy artistically. Gauguin wanted to remove colour from its natural classification. The distorted forms and the use of strong contour lines together with rather flat and little graduated colour application also made the influence of Japanese woodcuts, of which Gauguin demonstrably owned several, clear.

Thus the ground here is a deep red surface; it is neither earth, nor grass, nor field. The colour is thus deprived of its natural function and association. This choice of colour was not accidental. On the one hand, it was inspired by Hiroshige's "Plum Park in Kameido" together with the diagonal tree, and on the other hand, the colour underlines the pictorial theme of struggle, as it appears potentially aggressive in its force and surface. Furthermore, Bernard later cited Hokusai's "Sumo Wrestlers" as a direct source of influence for the pictorial theme. With this idea of conceiving of colour in purely abstract terms, Gauguin broke with a view that had existed since the Renaissance. The lack of depth is another element that Gauguin borrowed from Japanese art. He thus distanced himself from the Impressionists.

At the end of August 1888, Gauguin wrote: "I am making good progress with my last works, and I think you will find a new note, or rather the confirmation of my earlier attempts to synthesise a form and a colour without either dominating." With their style and associated ideas, Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin coined the art term "Synthetism", which, in addition to the novel use of colour, is characterised by two-dimensional and ornamental arrangements of simplified forms and figures with emphasised, black outlines.

Paul Gauguin - Jacob wrestling with the angel

Oil on canvas, 1888, 73.0 x 92.0 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Emile Bernard - The Wheat Harvest

Oil on canvas, 1888, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Ando Hiroshige - Plum Park in Kameido

Woodcut, 1857, 37 x 25 cm

Hokusai - Sumo wrestlers practising for a match (detail)

Hólz print, 1817


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