Visual Excitement in Peaceful Scenes:
Runs Sep 27 – Jan 11
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
The last years of the 19th Century were a time of great upheaval in art as well as literature and music. That is the foundation of the new exhibition’s (Sept. 27-Jan. 11) mouth-filling title: “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music.”
The show concentrates on the group of artists that gathered around Georges-Pierre Seurat in Paris and Brussels. We think of them as the Pointillists (although Seurat referred to the technique of painting with dots of color, or drawing with black Conté crayon, as Divisionism). It is a stunning show of discovery.
The name Seurat is a household word, even among those with little interest in art history, because of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the huge (it is 10 feet wide) painting of frozen-in-place men, women and children in a park on the Seine in suburban Paris. It’s been reproduced in every medium from refrigerator magnets to paper napkins. It isn’t, however, in the show which concentrates on what we don’t know. There were many other artists in the brief movement; so many that the Phillips is able to display more than 70 works by 15 artists, only a few of whom are widely known today.
Many, if not most, of the artists exhibited together as Impressionists between 1874 and 1882. The first show of the evolved style (not yet known as Neo-Impressionist) was five years later. By the end of the century, the movement was essentially over. Seurat was only in his 20s during all of this. He died in 1891 at 32. Among the most prominent, Camille Pissaro was one of the eldest, so his career was mostly before the period (he died in 1903). Paul Signac, four years younger than Seurat, continued to evolve his style to his death in 1935.
Generally, the color palette was bright, and it sometimes involved experiments in color in a scientific way—particularly Signac and Seurat. But it also could be dark, and even black. I was particularly taken by Cameret, Moonlight and Fishing Boats, by Maximilien Luce. It is dark and moody, and the static scene seemed to give a sense of movement to the boats at anchor.
There is movement, also, in Signac’s Two Cypresses, Opus 241 (Mistral). Program notes explain that he assigned opus numbers as if they were musical compositions because that’s the way he saw his painting. Some music programs are scheduled with the show. His Adagio suggests movement in the boats of sardine fishers at sunset.
Two no-color works I found especially absorbing were by Charles Angrand: The Annunciation to the Shepherds and The Good Samaritan. In varying shades of gray, from near black to silvery charcoal and Conté crayon, light from above dimly reveals the shepherds receiving the news of the birth of Christ, and the Samaritan loading the injured man on his horse. At first, it is difficult to make out the subjects, but the effect is powerful once one realizes what is going on.
Seurat himself is represented both in crayon—from the Phillips’ own collection—and the style of painting by which we know him.
Most of the paintings are fairly large despite the slow process of creating them—some took years to complete. Few are so large, though, as the larger-than-life-size Portrait of Irma Sèthe with Violin. That’s in oil. He also worked in crayon as in Drawing of Emile Verhaeren. Both show the technique in a number of the works of a use of Pointillism to give an impression of the clothing and surroundings from which the faces emerge in a more representational way.
The movement was inspired, program notes suggest, through interactions with literary Symbolist contemporaries. Some even designed book covers, or covers for published music.
It is kind of pointless to try to describe paintings in words. See them if you can. Phillips Collection is at 1600 21st St. NW in central DC. Warning: the museum is in a residential area and parking is hell (I got a $30 ticket).
The guest curator is Dr. Cornelia Homburg, a specialist in the period. After getting her PhD from the University of Amsterdam, she began her career at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. She became curator first at Washington University in St. Louis and then Saint Louis Art Museum. In 2003 she left to work as an independent art historian and live in France. She has curated a number of exhibitions, the most recent being Van Gogh: Up Close at the National Gallery of Canada.