A step away from the new order

Here is a representational picture that shows us abstract painting in the making. Emile Bernard was a contemporary and friend of Van Gogh and Gauguin, and worked at different times with both of the more celebrated artists. In ''Ragpickers at Asnieres (Clichy),'' Bernard was developing a style that Gauguin would later take to a greater extreme than he did himself. On the basis of this style, he and Gauguin evolved together a kind of painting they called ''synthetism,'' envisioning religious or spiritual ideas in terms of the experience of French peasants.

Bernard seems to have painted the ''Ragpickers'' without any such intention of suggesting spiritual content. On one level, it is a glimpse of the growing industrialization and anonymity of the Paris suburb where his parents lived. The simplification of the ragpickers' figures into black silhouettes, just distinguishable as a man and a woman, is part of the formal stylization that pervades the picture.

However, we can hardly avoid seeing a social observation in their reduction to flat shapes, much like those of the bridge piers and the passing train. The Impressionists of the previous generations had turned the attention of French painters to the social reality of their own time, and away from the historical and allegorical themes of the academic tradition. Like them, Bernard wondered what a painting would have to be like if it were really to be of its own time. His answer, in this case, was that form and color would have to supersede every received notion of content. The colors here are so carefully placed and chosen that at first you accept them almost as realistic.

But look more closely and you see that they are practically unmodulated. An intense turquoise, interrupted with areas of deep violet, describe the river surface and the reflections in it. The dark green areas at the left foreground suggest dappled shadows so convincingly that it takes a while to notice that the riverbank is painted largely in tinted whites. Yet because of the adjustment of values within the picture, the white areas read as hazy sunlight on gravel, or even grass. The longer you look at this painting firsthand, the more its colors emerge as arbitrary, at least with respect to those of a real landscape. That they do not look arbitrary at first glance is proof that Bernard contrived a coherence among the color areas as convincing in its way as the picture's landscape format.

From such a stylization of appearances through color (and simplified drawing) , it was a short step to the notion and the demonstration that making a painting could amount to fabricating a new piece of reality. Perhaps because he left France in the 1890s and became enamored of Venetian Renaissance painting, Bernard never made that step.

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