5 The avant-garde and Paul Gauguin
In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, European art was split in two with the development of a self-consciously avant-garde tradition based in France. This was explicitly critical of the representational conventions associated with the Academic tradition. In its early manifestation this embodied a wide-ranging attempt to represent the conditions of modern life, particularly urban life as experienced in Paris. But before the end of the century, the urge on the part of avant-garde artists to distance themselves from the conventions of bourgeois society had led to the development of a discourse of ‘primitivism’. The ultimate expression of this idea came in the early twentieth century when artists such as Picasso and others ‘discovered’ African carvings. But before that, the search for an alternative to academic conventions had led avant-garde artists to an interest in forms as diverse as Japanese prints, cheap popular prints, folk art, and in a few cases, the art of ancient Egypt.
In the avant-garde, artists did not use Egyptian art to add local colour to their own fictions, so much as to reinforce their own technical radicalism. In his well-known painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, the post-impressionist Georges Seurat was widely seen to have used the stasis and uniformity, as well as the flatness, of Egyptian painting to offer a telling reflection on the mores of contemporary Parisians. More pivotal however in the evolution of ‘primitivism’ was the work of Paul Gauguin.