The first time I really looked at neo-impressionism was when I came across a painting by Paul Signac titled Opus 217. Against the Enamel of
a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. This seemed to be a bizarre painting without parallel in late nineteenth-century French art: hypnotic, colourful, symbolic, figurative, and abstract all at the same time. Then there was also the method – a laborious scientific dot-making. Why and how?
Intrigued by what this painting might mean, in its peculiar form and content, my curiosity compelled me to investigate further. The painting opened up a completely new understanding of the neo-impressionist movement for me. The general approach – at least the one I was exposed to as a student – was that this art movement was influenced by a study of the sciences of perception. But nothing was said about the artists’ political backgrounds and affiliations to anarcho- communist ideals, an essential key to unraveling what was really at the core of the aesthetic decisions behind neo-impressionism.
With the invitation to produce a new body of work for the exhibition This is the Time. This is the Record of the Time, I felt compelled to revisit this peculiar and short-lived art movement. What could I learn from these artists that would still
be relevant for artistic practices today? The final outcome of my work, although far from resembling a neo-impressionist painting, entrenches the considerations I personally identified with the most: these were questions related to the boundaries of production and leisure, and the political agency of art.
To think that the neo-impressionists were artists who used multi-coloured dots, or merely painted in a pointillist style is a widespread mistake. The method developed by Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, followed by Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Théo Van Rysselberghe, was called Divisionism or Chromoluminarism.
It was influenced by the advances in physical and physiological optics and the study of the psychology of colour.1 The neo-impressionist painting method was based on scientific reasoning as a rational process for depicting social-political realities and as a means of inscribing the work with social intent. In that sense, notions of harmony and aesthetic beauty were met with ideas of morality and justice in society.
This is clearly visible in the artists’ choices of subjects, specifically in works inspired by the Parisian context. Feelings such as alienation and anomie, driven by the shifts of a market economy in which exchange value and mass production were overruling the role of the artisan, are some of the topics covered by the artists. Their critiques of the modernization of society meet with the anarchist movement of the 1880s and 1890s, influenced by the thoughts of Jean Grave, Pierre Kropotkin, and Elisée Reclus.2
With these considerations in mind, how can we then interpret the shift in subject matter that flourishes mainly at the latest stage of neo- impressionism, from the 1900s onwards, and that moves from depictions of the working class in Paris to the decorative images of the Mediterranean shoreline? What can these landscapes tell us of the artists’ political positions?
My interpretation could be based on the changing conditions of labour in the urban environment; the artists’ rejection of a series of violent anarchist activities taking place in Paris;3 and even the finding of symbolic value in the anarchist dreams of a future society in the geographic setting of southern France. Such is the case in Paul Signac’s painting In Time of Harmony: The Golden Age is not in the Past, It is in the Future (1894–95), which was originally titled In Time of Anarchy, the setting of which is the St. Tropez shoreline.
In the painting, Signac’s political ambitions are clearly explicit; he depicts people engaged in such leisurely activities as reading, playing games, dancing, and painting, in juxtaposition to such labour activities as folding laundry, picking fruit, and working in the fields. Both types of activity are idealized. As such, he exposes the elements of social harmony of the anarcho-communist future, including the belief that technology would allow everyone to have free time and to need work only for a few hours.
Signac and Cross settled permanently in the South of France from 1892, but they never fully engaged with the community in which they lived. Even when their paintings represented the rural workers, it was from a detached or outsider’s position – from what John Urry calls “the tourist gaze,” which entails a form of “visual consumption through constructing the physical environment as a landscape not primarily for production but embellished for aesthetic appropriation.”4 What impresses me most here is that the aesthetics of the paintings and the political intentions of the artists are mainly dealt with through the employment of divisionism as its guiding ideological principle.
Neo-impressionism had a tangible engagement with abstraction. On the one hand, the artists employed a method that divided colour and light into brushstrokes of a reduced palette of pure colours. Rather than mixing them on the canvas, the colours had to be optically mixed by the viewer.4 On the other hand, they formulated a parallel between aesthetic values and the moral values of harmony and beauty. Their motivation was to put forward a political critique by means of aesthetics, a critique that refused to adopt the proto-capitalist economies of the modern urban age. This resulted in a painting process that resisted declaring itself as a direct form of commentary, but rather addressed its subject in a circumvented way.
Another element that further intrigued me in my research was the suggestion that the neo-impressionist method dismantled the idea of the virtuoso artist. Divisionism was considered to be a rational method of painting that keeps the brain focused rather than being infatuated or distracted by the expression of a brush stroke.5 Despite these artists’ stubbornness in using scientific theories and rejecting procrastination as valuable for the creative process, I can identify with the resistance to show-off and the rejection of an individual style.
By using neo-impressionist considerations such as the importance of light, the simultaneous contrast of colour, and a focus on landscape painting, I have re-interpreted several paintings from these artists for my own project. Although it is possible to establish a parallel between my chosen method of work and the one developed by the neo-impressionists, what is far more interesting to me is to observe the effect of such a chosen method. I decided to work with large photo negatives, which I exposed to light, applied photo dyes, and pierced. Each negative corresponded to existing neo-impressionist paintings. Working with photo negatives meant that I did not exactly know what would be the outcome of my designs until the very moment the photos were developed. To see the final outcome for the first time in the studio meant that I had to adjust myself to its aesthetics and accept the visual consequences of my actions. The final artworks complicate, or at least delay, immediate categorisations of the work: Which specific temporality can be assigned to these images? Are they reproductions of early twentieth-century artworks? Are they paintings or photographs? What kind of affect does the luminosity and specific use of colour produce? In addition, the project problematizes my understanding of our modern-day society that privileges labour over leisure vis-à-vis the neo-impressionists’ position that privileged leisure over labour.