This fall, the Phillips Collection wants audiences to see neo-impressionism as more than just the stunted, dot-loving precursor to cubism. For “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities,” guest curator Cornelia Homburg sets out to prove that Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and their French, Dutch, and Belgian followers were not just formalists obsessed with optics and color mixing. With 70 pieces by 15 artists, Homburg emphasizes the direct influence of music and Symbolist poetry on the movement, challenging the notion that neo-impressionists were inherently realists.
Indeed, many of the pieces on view offer windows onto idyllic, imaginary worlds with surreally amped-up colors and flattened, stylized forms. Throughout the show, Homburg develops a complicated picture of different artists with different agendas using the same attenuated tool kit. Yet in every room, the limitations of neo-impressionist methods are plain to see: Only so many subjects make sense when reduced to a flattened field of shimmering points of light. It’s no wonder that many of these artists eventually left the fold.
Neo-impressionism—called chromoluminarism by Seurat, the group’s first leader; Signac, his acolyte and heir, preferred Divisionism—had a pretty short shelf life. The movement’s peak lasted about five years: between 1886, when Seurat exhibited his giant 10-foot-long pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and 1891, when he died in his mother’s home at the age of 31, probably from diphtheria. During that brief time, neo-impressionism attracted a core of devoted followers and plenty of detractors, too. Critics described their paintings as covered in “colored fleas” or “fly droppings” and imagined that they had been created with “artillery and confetti.”
The neo-impressionists used tiny, separate strokes of saturated color, typically applying them to dry canvas, unlike the Impressionists, who often mixed colors on the canvas with alla prima or wet-into-wet methods. It was both a response to scientific developments in color theory and optics and a logical extension of earlier impressionist and French Romantic attitudes toward color in painting. “The enemy of all painting is gray!” Eugène Delacroix once wrote, and the neo-impressionists acted accordingly, doing their damnedest to avoid dull, neutral tints and shades.
Take, for example, Maximilien Luce’s “Camaret, Moonlight and Fishing Boats” (1894). In this depiction of a fishing village in Brittany, Luce renders the night sky as a brilliant carpet of pale green, violet, and ultramarine quanta. Edge to edge, top to bottom, the piece is evenly activated by incremental tonal contrasts and leapfrogging complementary colors. As with so many neo-impressionist canvases, the effect seems to mimic retinal fatigue and the floating after-images brought on by exposure to bright light in nature. More than a century after it was created, this piece can still over-stimulate the eye.
Yet once you look past the surface, the forms in this picture are curiously generic. Fishing boats are represented by rows of identical triangular wedges jutting out of the waves, topped by slender masts, all parallel with one another. Water, sky, and distant shore all appear to be made out of the same luminous, textured material. Luce’s painting is designed to maximize physiological response, but fine details, spatial depth, and any sense of a specific place and time have been lost in the process.
The first four rooms of the Phillips exhibition amply demonstrate that neo-impressionist daubs of contrasting color are fine for suggesting the presence of large expanses of water, or clouds, or mountains, but ill-suited for anything other than distant atmospherics. When figures do enter, as in George Lemmen’s “Promenade by the Sea” (1891), they tend to melt into the glowing light of the sunset, appearing as hazy, shapeless silhouettes. In her catalog and wall texts, Homburg emphasizes the imaginative, evocative character of these works—the way in which these artists were drawn to empty stretches of beach or depeopled cityscapes as a vehicle for focusing on contemplation and inner emotional states. Yet one wonders to what extent their working methods dictated their subject matter.
Signac, one of the movement’s leaders, is particularly guilty of stumbling over the limits of his own style. In “Bridge at Asnières: The Stern of the Tub in the Sun, Opus 175” (1888), the distance between the end of a boat in the extreme foreground—a sloppily constructed hulk with broken contours, awkwardly pushed into the bottom of the canvas—and the water and bridges in the background collapses, resulting in a cartoonish, flat image covered in orange and blue polka dots. Big jumps in distance and scale just don’t work in this world.
Political realities also seem banished from neo-impressionist practice, never mind that many of these painters were anarchists. When politics do make an appearance, the result is typically a fuzzy utopian reverie. In Camille Pissarro’s “Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground” (1891), lumpy, faceless ciphers labor together, their bodies nearly indistinguishable from the stakes behind them, the grass below them, or the air that seems to vibrate around them. It’s a loose, hallucinatory vision that might reflect the artist’s ideas about freedom, but is neither a call to action nor an inviting world in which to linger.
The show’s catalog details the neo-impressionists’ passion for music and their attempts to incorporate musical ideas into their paintings. Signac, for example, typically used opus numbers and musical movements in his titles, presumably to note the melodies or tempos that his compositions somehow might suggest. Yet the decorative curlicues and broken contours in paintings like the roughly six-foot-tall “Women at the Well, Opus 238” (1892) feel inert and give a sense only of regimented stillness. Théo van Rysselberghe’s similarly scaled “Portrait of Irma Sèthe with Violin” (1894) features a glowing, nearly life-size female figure in a pale pink dress playing violin, apparently lost in her own music. Yet the voluminous folds of her clothing look stiff, immobile, certainly not flowing; the construction of the room is fussy and filled with inelegant angles. Nothing here suggests the moment-to-moment dynamism of musical expression.
Thankfully, Homburg’s research into the neo-impressionists’ historical context doesn’t lead us down the rabbit hole of revisionism. There has been a tendency in museum retrospectives over the past few years for curators to indulge in ahistorical reimaginings, casting modernist artists as proto-postmodernists, or asking viewers to consider apolitical artworks in the light of an artist’s seldom-expressed political beliefs. Homburg sheds light on these artists’ interests, aspirations, and source material, but she doesn’t invent new origin stories for them.
Overall, the show makes Neo-impressionism seem a little more approachable, a little less like an evolutionary dead end in painting. These were not the first painters who felt the need to measure their work against poetry or music, and they certainly weren’t the last to dream of unity in the arts; synaesthesia would be a preoccupation for generations of European abstractionists to come. The shortcomings of these works mostly stem from the restlessness of these artists, all wanting paint on a canvas to be more, do more, and mean more, and all willing to gamble on the next big idea to make that happen.
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