Radiance – The Post Impressionists – NGV Til 17 March 4K

Georges Seurat - La-Seine à Courbevoie

By Peter Maddern

With the presence of the Impressionists on the art landscape finally secured by the early 1880s, the Post Impressionist movement was devised by two up and coming French artists who sort to redefine how the ‘impressionist’ style should be delivered. The two, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, devised two major shifts in the impressionist method – the first was to eschew the drive to produce their paintings in situ, as an immediate response to the scene and the light and the sensation of the view. Instead, sketches and studies may be quickly prepared in the summer but the big, exacting work would be undertaken during the long winter months thereafter.

The second change was to take a ‘scientific’ approach to how colour would be delivered to the viewer. This involved abandoning mixing paints on the palette in favour of the application of dabs of ‘pure’ colour arranged so that the interaction of adjoining contrasts would produce a third tone for the viewer.

This style, sometimes referred to as ‘dot’ painting by the ‘pointillists’ (the proponents preferred to called it ‘divisionalism’) , in fact failed to deliver on its theoretical thrill but that did not stop an alternative form of impressionism growing that has stood the test of time. For while the science failed, what was delivered were paintings of scenes that appear to shimmer, especially from the effect of warm summer sun, or vibrate before one’s eyes, notably of depictions of water, whether of the sea or rivers.

Radiance – The Post Impressionists at the National Gallery of Victoria is an excellent review of this movement. By no means the largest exhibition ever staged (and that is no bad thing), but the nature of the Post Impressionist movement is that this exhibition more than nicely covers its players and stages until World War I brought it all to a close.

Georges Seurat - A Sunday on the grande jatte

The exhibition greets you with a Seurat masterpiece, The Seine at Courbevoie (1885) (above) which not only makes plain the style of the post-impressionist movement but firmly places this painter as the first amongst the pack.  Practicalities, of course, deny us his and the greatest work of the movement, Sunday on La Grande Jatte, (left) a six square metre tribute to not only style but geometry that awaits patrons at the Chicago Art Institute as they enter there, but Seine, on  a much smaller scale, gives you the idea – the river; a sea of blue, green and white dabs vibrating for the viewer as it flows, grass; light and dark strips depending on the shadow and distant housing shimmering in the summer heat all composed in a rather rigid, geometrical form epitomised by the slim and proper woman in the foreground with her parasol and small dog.

Another characteristic of the Post-Impressionist movement was the political glue of ‘anarchy’ that held advocates together. Then anarchy referred not to violent, nihilistic rebellion but rather dismay about government and a belief the future lay in a harmonious relationship between industrial progress and the natural world. Accordingly, many of the works depict these forces co-habiting together in beautiful settings. Signac, Maximilien Luce and Camille Pissarro works are the stand outs in this regard with the Pissarro double of Flock of Sheep (1888) and Delafolie Brickworks at Éragny (1886) the crème de a la crème.

Achille Lauge - Portrait of Madame Astre 1892

Perhaps the most challenging for the movement’s artists and surprising for patrons are the last works presented, the portraits done in this most challenging style. Two works by Achille Laugé, the portraits of Madame Astre (1892) (left) and Alice Séthe (1888) are particularly arresting. The former, that failed to attract much critical interest in its time, is a two metre work (that makes it no doubt larger than the subject herself) is a masterful working of the dot / division style. The subject is in a white dress that blends in with the wall behind her but Laugé works the canvas with just two colours to incorporate not only her but the folds of her garments and the shifting shadows and tones of the light around and behind her.

While the advent of World War I officially ended the Post Impressionist movement, it is probably true to say it was in serious decline as many as twenty years before and just ten years after the first meeting of Seurat and Signac in Paris that kicked it all off. Seurat himself died in 1892 at the age of just 31 and many other disciples drifted away from that time as the rigours of the ‘scientific’ technique overwhelmed them and they sought the freedom to create their own aesthetic beyond this movement’s strictures.

Attempts to shift the building blocks of the movement from the ‘pure’ colours of red, blue and green were also not as successful, with the nightscapes of city scenes somewhat unhappy to the eye and the lengthening of the dabs enjoying only marginally greater success. The advent of Van Gogh’s work and then the likes of Picasso quickly highlighted that this movement had little more to say, especially as its academic foundations had failed to deliver on their promise, even if the resulting canvases were nonetheless highly full of merit.

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