Georges Seurat is a member of that small, unfortunate group of artists who were destined for greatness but died prematurely. When Seurat was carried off by malignant diphtheria in 1891, at the age of 31, modern art lost one of its most remarkable innovators. It is a loss that bears comparison to that of Masaccio, the Renaissance prodigy who perished at 26.
Seurat’s legacy is explored in the National Gallery of Victoria’s summer exhibition – Radiance: the Neo-Impressionists. It is inevitably a partial overview because the artist’s best and largest paintings are rarely allowed to travel. I saw a Seurat retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1991 and was dismayed to find three of his most important pictures represented only by giant-sized cibachrome photographs.
Curator, Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, notes that Seurat’s masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-86), has not left the Art Institute of Chicago since 1958.
If even the Grand Palais could not coax owners to lend their Seurats we should be thankful the NGV has managed to secure no fewer than five oils. Two of them – The Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (1885), from the Tate; and Port-en-Bessin, the outer harbour, high tide (1888), from the Musée d’Orsay – are outstanding.
A major disappointment is that none of Seurat’s drawings have been included in the show, even though drawing was more crucial for the Neo-Impressionists than it was for their predecessors such as Monet and Renoir. It is a revelation to see the differences between Seurat’s clear, analytical paintings, and the dense, impacted nature of his black crayon sketches.
That complaint aside it’s tedious to dwell on pictures that are not in an exhibition. Among those pieces that made it to the NGV there are some startling works by artists who are hardly household names. Although viewers may not be yearning to see paintings by Maximilien Luce, Henri Cross, Théo Van Rysselberghe, Achille Laugé, or even Paul Signac, each of these painters made a significant contribution to the movement. Signac, who took the lead when Seurat died, is a seminal figure as artist, theoretican and proselytizer, although his pictures are of variable quality.
The term, Neo-Impressionism was reputedly coined by the critic, Félix Féneon, in an article of September 1888. The artists themselves preferred the title, ‘Divisionism’, which paid proper regard to the orderly, unspontaneous way in which their paintings were composed. They disliked the popular label of ‘Pointillism’, as it seemed to reduce a complex practice to the mere laying on of dots.
If art historians prefer to call these artists Neo-Impressionists it is because this emphasises their continuity with an earlier generation. The most basic point of contrast is that Impressionism was devoted to the fleeting instant – the play of sunlight and shadow, a figure captured in an unguarded moment. Seurat and his peers were part of a general disenchantment with this tactic, which set in as Impressionism became fashionable. The desire to make works that were more structured and substantial was shared with artists identified as Impressionists, such as Dégas and Manet; and by those we think of as Post-Impressionists, such as Cézanne and Gauguin. It was a return to the classical underpinnings of French art, as found in Poussin, Claude and Ingres.
The distinguishing characteristic of Neo-Impressionism was its preoccupation with the so-called science of colour. For Seurat and Signac this meant an immersion in the works of writers such as Charles Blanc, Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and Charles Henry. This led to a thorough investigation into the properties of contrasting and complementary colours. By putting paint onto a canvas in small dabs, it was believed the actual mixing of colours would take place in the viewer’s eye.
Although it anticipates the pixellated screens of today, the hypothetical mixing never occurred. Instead, it produced paintings in which surfaces seemed to be fizzing with busy atoms. It was as if light had been broken down into particles that were then used as building blocks for a composition. Painted forms appear to radiate light rather than simply reflect it.
In works such as Seurat’s Port-en-Bessin, the dots are small and fine, but not many of his followers had this degree of patience. As the movement aged, the size of the dots tended to increase. In the late works made in the south of France by Signac and Cross we could be looking at mosaics rather than paintings. There is no longer any thought of mixing colours in the retina – the effect has become largely decorative.
Seurat was a man with a method, who believed in the scientific correctness of the style he had masterminded. If people found his pictures to be beautiful and harmonious that was due to the way they had been constructed, not because of any personal “poetic” qualities.
Yet one can hardly believe Seurat was quite so extreme in denying the value of his own imaginative input, even if he argued that the motif was nothing without the method. No great art is attributable solely to technique, and theory is futile without talent. Despite their “Egyptian” mannerisms his paintings did not strike his contemporaries as cold and clinical, and they do not appear like that today. They are studies in frozen emotion, held perpetually on the brink of reanimation.
Seurat was a leader in both word and example. At a first viewing of La Grande Jatte the 56-year-old Camille Pissarro was so blinded by Seurat’s science that he and his artist son, Lucien, became converts to the new style.
Pissarro weathered a lot of criticism for his conversion, but he pursued the pointillist approach for a few years until he found it too restrictive. One could argue that Pissarro’s Neo-Impressionist pictures are more sensual and painterly than those of his younger colleagues. He continued to produce landscapes and scenes of peasant life using small dabs of colour, but his canvases were never so rigidly designed as the works of Seurat or Signac.
One of the oddities of Neo-Impressionism, and perhaps a reason for Pissarro’s attraction, was its links with the Anarchist movement. Although history tends to view the Anarchists as bomb throwers and assassins, this was the extreme end of a political philosophy that held utopian views on political freedom and equality. Most of the Neo-Impressionists seem to have been Anarchists or sympathisers. Luce drew blazing illustrations for left-wing magazines, although only the critic, Féneon was known to have planted a bomb.
The Anarchist dream of perfect equality had its parallel in Seurat’s method, which downplayed individual expression in favour of a simple, rational means of production. It was also reflected in the everyday nature of his subjects, which showed ordinary people at leisure.
As the Anarchist movement became more violent, and subsequently more persecuted, the artists turned away from the class struggles of the metropolis. The works Signac and Cross would produce on the Mediterranean presented visions of a golden age, with men and women living in harmony with nature. They were joined briefly by Henri Matisse, who painted one of his few Divisionist pictures, Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) under Signac’s influence.
The joy of a method – even one as imperfect as Seurat’s – is that it is applicable to many different subjects. Feed an image into one end of the machine and it comes out the other as a Divisionist picture. Putting aside stylistic differences, the landscapes and genre scenes favoured by the Impressionists were just as popular with the Neo-Impressionists.
Both groups of artists had a thorough academic training. They may have concentrated on depictions of modern life rather than the high-blown fantasies of the Salon painters, but they did not venture far from convention.
Portraiture was one of the accepted genres that cut across all styles and movements, usually in the form of a paying commission. The surprises of this exhibition are two impressive portraits by Van Rysselberghe – of the Belgian poet, Émile Verhaeren, and Alice Sèthe, daughter of a Brussels industrialist. These works were convincing demonstrations that the Divisionist method could produce paintings that stood alongside the best society portraiture while retaining the characteristic surface buzz generated by those thousands of miniscule dots.
Achille Laugé achieves a similar feat in his Portrait of Madame Astre (1892), using a predominantly white palette that lends the painting a stark, cold beauty. Like all pictures done in this manner, one needs to examine it up close to see the way the dots coalesce into solid forms. It can’t have been easy to paint like this, partly because it required an artist to discipline any natural fluency with a brush. Perhaps there is a greater art in self-restraint than self-expression.
Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists, The National Gallery of Victoria, November 16, 2012 – March 17, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 19, 2013