It was the American author, poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau who once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see".
Beautiful and thought-provoking, it’s an observation that befits the spirit and scope of the National Gallery of Victoria’s current exhibition, Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists.
Curated by Mariana Ferretti Bocquillon (Directeur Scientifique of the Musée des Impressionnismes, Giverny) in consultation with the NGV, Radiance – with its appealing curatorial themes including Neo-Impressionism and the city, The lure of the sea and Anarchy’s Arcadia – is as much about the great personalities of the artists and their intellectual vigour, as it is about the immediacy and profound beauty of their work. Featuring 78 paintings, the exhibition offers a unique overview of the movement’s birth and development in France and Belgium from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I.
The emergence of Neo-Impressionism is paralleled with the unexpected friendship that formed between two gifted Parisian artists, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who met in 1884. Radiance features an incredible selection of each artist’s work, offering Australian audiences the chance to see some rare pieces by Seurat who died aged 31 having produced few works.
Move around the gallery space and see a world of shimmering surfaces, of grand portraits, and sublime landscapes and sea vistas. Rarely is the spirit of modernity – embodied in the moment by its artists – seen by 21st century eyes, eyes that glance upon busy surfaces and backlit screens that seem to be so vastly removed from what the Neo-Impressionists wished their viewers to experience: the continuity between the painted and the real, the linking of lives to meaning through colour and light, and a vision that the idyllic landscape can somehow ‘embody the anarchist ideal of natural order and harmony’.
Neo-Impressionist paintings – often composed in the artificial light of the studio – convey a sense of wonder, the surfaces of canvas or board carrying the Divisionist painting technique that distinguishes this movement. Imagine if you will, the Neo-Impressionists applying individual colours directly onto the canvas using ‘dabs’ or ‘touches’, placing side-by-side strong opposing colours in solid blocks or patches of paint. Scenes or subjects would be meticulously studied, and compositions created to emphasise the optical effect this technique (often more organic and instinctive than historically recognised) produced.
“They felt that the mixing of colours created a grey sludge in the viewer’s eye,” Dr Ted Gott, NGV head of international art, said recently. “And by laying side-by-side complementary colours, they felt that the clash of those colours on the canvas would create a flash of light in the retina, which would make their paintings seem even more luminous.
“Ideally they hoped that in the very best of their work, these individual dabs of colour… would actually blend and create a third colour in the viewer’s eye.”
With the life and work of Seurat and Signac informing the mood and range of the exhibition, viewers also have the opportunity to see the work of other Neo-Impressionists including Camille Pissarro, Maximilien Luce, and Henri-Edmond Cross.
Cross’s The beetle (1906-07) (Le Scarabée), and Mediterranean shores (Bords méditerranéens) (1895), epitomise the exhibition’s Anarchy’s Arcadia section with radiant surfaces and scenes of harmony where beautifully realised people share the idylls of nature.
“Until now,” wrote Cross in a letter to Signac in the mid 1890s, “… pictures dealing with the theme of anarchy have always depicted revolt directly or indirectly... Let us imagine instead the dreamed of age of happiness and well-being and let us show the actions of man, their play and work in this era of general harmony.”
The works of Belgian artists, Georges Lemmen and Théo Van Rysselberghe, considered the movement’s primary portraitists, also feature prominently, Van Rysselberghe’s Émile Verhaeren in his study (Rue du Moulin) (1892) – thought of by many as ‘the’ Neo-Impressionist portrait – a testimony to the beauty of surface and the strength of the friendship between artist and sitter.
As with 2012’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, Radiance owes much of its power to the historical context in which the works were created. Many French Neo-Impressionists grew up during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and lived through the disastrous events that followed. By the 1880s, Paris, like many great cities of the world, was experiencing rapid change – Luce’s Cathedral at Gisors (La cathédrale de Gisors) (1898) is a memorable example of this. Conversely, cityscapes were completely abandoned in favour of idyllic seascapes that play beautifully with the viewer’s eye, and offer a sense of freedom from the oppressions of any age.
Radiance is the first comprehensive survey of Neo-Impressionism in Australia. It is art at its most pleasurable and sublime, and augurs well for the NGV’s highly-anticipated Monet’s Garden: The Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, next in the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series, opening May 10.
Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists shows at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, until March 17, 2013.
Paul Signac. French 1863–1935, Saint-Tropez. Fountain (Saint-Tropez. Fontaine des Lices) 1895, oil on canvas.
Henri-Edmond CROSS. French 1856–1910, Mediterranean shores (Bords méditerranéens) 1895 oil on canvas. Collection of Lenora and Walter F. Brown. Photo: Steven Tucker.
Maximilien Luce, French 1858–1941. Cathedral at Gisors (La cathédrale de Gisors) 1898. oil on canvas.