07 March 2017

Paul Serusier: Early Spring In Finistere

"The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach."

It was an American naturalist, Henry Bestoon, who included those words in his book The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928).  When I look at this early spring landscape by the Frenchman Paul Serusier, it seems an apt epigraph in every way.  Serusier lived much of his artistic life in Finistere (from the Latin finis terae meaning the end of the earth), the westernmost  point of the Breton peninsula and the French outpost on the north Atlantic.  Surrounded on three sides by water, Finistere is a place where the ocean is always present even when unseen.  As for a primeval wood,  archeological evidence shows that Brittany has been inhabited for  hundreds of thousands of years.  Indeed, one of the oldest hearths ever unearthed is located in Finistere, dating back at least 45,000 years.

We can see evidence of extreme age in Serusier's Landscape; the little roadway is recessed, sunken by untold years of use.   The pastels and colored pencils Serusier used on grey paper contribute to the sense of the diffuse, returning light typical of early spring.  The bones of the trees are still visible through the haze of buds, but not for long.  Treasure this moment, the artist seems to say to us.  Like all the others, it cannot last.

Paul Serusier (1864-1927) was born in Paris, but it was during the eventful summer of 1888, when he and a group of artists gathered around Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven, on the south coast of Finistere, that Serusier's artistic career really began.  The other painters considered the lesser known Serusier as the real leader of the Nabi (Hebrew word for Prophet) ggroup rather than the flamboyant Gauguin.  The next year when Serusier wrote to Maurice Denis, he expressed an almost religious commitment to the group: "I dream for the future of a purified fraternity,made of of only committed srtists, lovers of beauty and truth,  who combine in their works and their lives, than indefinable quality i translate as Nabi."   Yes, they were all of them young and earnest, and  Serusier, having a philosophical bent, would go on to create a theoretical system - or two -  to organize the random ideas  by Gauguin.  Eventually Serusier moved from the increasingly popular art colony to Morlaix, a commune on the north coast of Finistere, where he enjoyed the quiet

Paul Serusier - Landscape, 1912, pastel and colored pencil on grey paper, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

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