Man Ray, Untitled (Hat), 1933, Photograph, 7 x 8.3 inches
Freud wrote that hats are like sex organs – sometimes phallic, sometimes vaginal. If a man wears a brimmed hat with a sloping indentation that runs across the top (the Trilby hat, seen above in Man Ray’s 1933 photograph), he sports a symbol of female sexuality on his head. But what about women who wear headdresses and religious habits, the hat’s more dramatic cousins? Variations on the theme, they are morphological elaborations on the gyno-principle. In the late 19th century, women in Brittany, in northwest France, possessed an enormous vocabulary of intricately folded, starched or lacey headdresses that corresponded to their age, the time of year, and religious events. In Pont Aven, where Paul Gauguin and the Nabis painters worked, they were especially varied and striking. The Breton women and their hats were the subject of numerous paintings that chronicle a radical shift towards proto-abstraction.
Bretons arrived in France in the 5th and 6th centuries from southwest Britain, escaping Germanic invaders. Their 19th century version of Roman Catholicism still contained rampant pagan influences from their ancient origins. The headdresses themselves descend from the Druidic tradition.
An artists’ colony in Pont Aven attracted painters in the second half of the 19th century. Many of the painters who arrived there in the late 1880s were drawn by Gauguin, among them Emil Bernard, Maurice Denis and Paul Serusier. But even before the Nabis began painting local women in traditional dress, they had been a source of fascination for other artists. In 1872, Robert Wylie painted La Sorciere Bretonne, a scene of four Breton women attending to a baby in its mother’s lap, with two men and a small boy on the outskirts of the action. Knowing nothing of the specifics of the “sorcery” being depicted, one thing is obvious: the men don’t matter much. Both in shadow, one with his back turned to us: the focus is clearly on the intensity of the women, who each wear a different headdress. Fifteen years later, in 1887, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret painted Breton Women at a Pardon (a type of religious festival). Again, the focus is on women in elaborate hats and collars. They sit in a circle on the grass, listening to one woman read from a sheet of paper, as the men stand off to the side, shadowy and unimportant.
At this time, Emil Bernard had helped develop Cloisonnism, a style that involved bold colors, flattened forms and dark outlines, in service of simplicity and accessibility. In Breton Women in the Meadow (1888), the headdresses sit like sculptures atop the women’s heads, and their faces, when visible, are cursory, alien, almost mask-like. Bernard’s inventive handling of the folding white forms makes them more animate and alive than the figures that wear them. They become biomorphic and almost glyph-like as they punctuate the picture.
Émile Bernard, Breton Women in the Meadow, 1888, Oil on canvas, 36.6 × 29.1 inches
Paul Serusier, Breton Women The Meeting in the Sacred Grove, 1892, Oil on canvas
Maurice Denis, Landscape with Green Trees, 1893, Oil on canvas, 46 x 43 inches
Sorcery and occult rituals were also depicted by Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis, in scenes of gatherings in sacred groves. The artists themselves become the shadowy men on the outside looking in. The Nabis (which means ‘prophet’ in Hebrew) were also interested in the occult, which informed their painterly sensibilities. Paul Gauguin was a member of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society – he remained a devout theosophist for twenty years until the end of his life. For theosophists, color had mysterious powers and could express specific experiences or states of mind. There was much pseudo-scientific research at the time to “prove” how color might affect the psyche. The ancient influence of alchemy on color theory, from Isaac Newton to Goethe, was part of the lineage of these ideas.
Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (1888) is a vision of Jacob and an angel fighting: a biblical scene bathed in red. It could symbolize blood but it is also the color of the philosopher’s stone, the ultimate goal of alchemy. By probing into visionary states through the psychological or magical effects of color, not just through the depiction of women experiencing a shared hallucination, Gauguin veers into abstraction. The blankness of the white habits unfolds into flatness and pure expanses of color. The habits become like pieces of paper containing occult secrets, like folding and unfolding picture planes, stand-ins for the canvas, as it reveals and conceals its inner workings. The white forms release the secrets in the form of a hallucination. Their narrows, creases and curves guide our eyes around the painting, yet all of the spectators’ eyes are closed. The only pair of what one might call ‘eyes’ is formed by folds on the back of a habit. True seeing is only possible with the assistance of the hat.
As these ornate constructions were placed on the head, their powers amplified. They had hypnotic power not just over the women, but the men who regarded them with awe. As Emil Bernard wrote, the aim of the Nabis was “to highlight the abstract sense and not the objective…Seeing through the religious costumes inspired a more visionary approach. There was an invisible meaning under the mute shape of exteriority.” The obsessive focus on the sacred genital architecture of the headdress and the fixation on female-centric, occult religious rituals encouraged Gauguin and his followers to turn away from the visible, towards the visionary – a necessary step on the road to modernism.
Jennifer Coates is an artist, writer and musician living in NYC. www.jenniferlcoates.com