Notebook, 1993-

APPROACHES - Modernism -- Mainstreams of Modern Art

From: Canaday, John. Mainstreams of Modern Art. New York: Simon and Schustesr. 1961.

Mainstreams of Modern
- The Explorers

By the end of the nineteenth century, impressionism had run its course, although Renoir, Degas,and Monet continued to work well into the twentieth. But even while impressionism was still fighting for final recognition, new directions were being followed by several men whose art was to determine the course of painting in the first generation of the new century. Fanning out from impressionism, they explored independently. More than any other painters in the history of art, they developed their theories in isolation, and in contradiction to one another. They are grouped under the catch-all designation of post-impressionists, a term meaning nothing except that these men departed from impressionism to find new ways of painting. The ways they found were too various to be covered by a more descriptive designation; at least so far, no better collective term has abeen found to describe the art of Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh [all of whom, incidentally, died before Renoir, Degas, and Monet--even by as much as thirty-five years, to take the extreme limts betwen the death of Seurat, who died very young, and Mondet, who died very old]. The point is made at such length only to remind the reader that chapters in a book follow one another between neater boundary lines than do the birth and death dates of painters or, especially in our time, the genesis and development of new expressions in art. The trauma that led from impressionism into the plethora of isms we group under the term modern art was experienced by and expressed by the painters we call post impressionists. [p. 327]

Neo-impressionism: Seurat
While Renoir was painting his Bathers in reaction against the formlessness of impressionism, a younger man named Georges Seurat [1859-1891] was attacking the same problem in a different way. With excruciating patience he was applyin tiny dots of color to 67 square feet of canvas which, when the dots finally covered it, would be the painting that divides impressionism from the twentieth century, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. [399, 400], which shows the strolling crowd in a public park on an island in the Seine near Paris. Both Renoir and Seurat were intent on pulling together again the disintegrating forms of impressionism, redefining their boundaries and solidifying the masses that had become ambiguous in their fusion with light and air. Renoir did so by retreating from impressionism; Seurat did so by plunging into it and putting it in order like a fanatic housewife tidying up a bachelor's apartment. By a more dignified comparison, he was like a catalyst dropped into the frothy impressionist mixture, suddenly reducing it to crystals of perfect geometrical form.

By any comparison, Seurat was the most systematic painter who ever lived, and of all painters who have tried to work on scientific principles he is the only one of major importance whose art suggests the laboratory as much as it does the studio. Since he was systematic in the extreme, his work is easy to reduce to a recipe. But like any recipe for painting, this one is deceptive since it is full of hidden variables dependent on the skill and the sensibilites of the artist. Seurat's recipe may produce a work of art as it did when Seurat used it, or a pointless exercise as it usually did in the hands of his followers. But the recipe remains:

First: Simplify all natural forms to silhouettes in accord with their basic geometrical equivalents, modifying them as necessary in accord with the taste of the artist to increase their effectiveness as pure design. Seurat's taste was for the most exquisite precision of contour; even before he added the element of geometrical reduction, this taste is evident in his academic student drawings [ 401], which allied him to the tradition of Ingres. He worked in the Academy's school under Lahmann, who may be remembered as a disciple of Ingres, and he studied drawings by Ingres even while he was studying Delacroix's color. But he was unaffected by Delacroix's spirit, and it should become apparent as his work is followed here that Seurat is well within the classical tradition--its purity, its balance, and even in the specifically classical-academic characteristic of insistence upon formula. Drawings in his fully developed style [402] have their own kind of formal idealization, even though Seurat insisted always upon the contemporary, everyday subjects of impressionism as opposed to the idealism of conventionally classical ones.

Second: Assemble these silhouettes into a composition [previously determined in its general expressive disposition], further modifying the individual forms and adjusting their interrelatinship until they are perfectly integreated with one another and the space around them. The subject of this composition will observe the impressinists' allegiance to the world at hand, but its expressiveness will be achieved by the application of psychological values of line and color that impressionism sacrificed to "effects" of light and atmosphere and the accidental dispositions of forms in nature.

Third: Paint this composition in the technique called "divisionism" or "pointillism," in accord with theories of color held by the artist.

It is in the second state, the creation of the composition, that Seurat returns most obviously to French classical standards. The infinite adjustment of the parts of La Grande Jatte into a perfected, static interrelationship is in the tradition of Poussin. But the highly simplified forms are not Poussinesque; in their creation and their combination Seurat is eq ually in the tradition of the ubiquitous Japanese print, with its ornamental flatness. Of course these two traditions are contradictory, Poussin's [p. 329] bein a tradition of composition of three-dimensional forms in three-dimensional space. La Grande Jatte can be read thus, or it can be read simply across its surface, just as its forms can be read as silhouettes, or as geometrical solids. As a composition of solid forms in classical depth the picture is more subtle, more complex, and finally more rewarding, but it is also a wonderfully effective composition if it is regarded as an enormous flat ornamental screen. This spacial ambivalence, offspring of the union between the European painters' admiration for Japanese print design and their own ingrained Western tradition, is present in a great deal of painting during these years. And although Seurat certainly knew the prints first hand, their influence also entered his art in a roundabout way, through the art of Puvis de Chavannes.

Pierre C&eacite'cile Puvis de Chavannes [1824-1898] occupies a curious position in French painting. A little younger than Courbet, a little older than Manet, he was unaffected by the realist-impressionist movement and is habitually thought of as one of the successful academic painters. Actually Puvis de Chavannes had a series of early rejections from the Salon and later on, when he was firmly established and served on Salon juries, he irritated the other members by the freedom of his judgments, and at the end of the century he was greatly respected by the generation representd by Seurat. Puvis seems both sentimental and stuffy to contemporary taste; his allegories are obvious and his subjet pictures have a synthetic sweetness which is tiresome. But as a mural designer, as he essentially was, he simplified and flattened his forms into compositions of a decorative clarity and nicety unique in his generation. ^ We see more and more that he was an important influence on modern painting, not only through Seurat but, as will soon be seen, even more surprisingly through Gauguin.

Seurat so admired a painting by Puvis, The Poor Fisherman [403], that he made a free copy of it, shortly before he began work on La Grande Jatte. Whatever else The Poor Fisherman may be--sentimental, prettified, and ambiguous in its compromise between conventionalization and photographic realism--compositionally it is a harmonioius combination of simplified forms disciplined into delicate, but decisive, balance. Upon this kind of composition Seurat imposed further disciplines, always in the direction of increased abstraction, as in the severely beautiful Bridge at Courbevoie [404], distilled to the geometrical essence of the subject's elements. In La Grande Jatte, Seurat's problem was to achieve equal clarity in the manipulation of large number of elements in more complicated relationships.

Once the composition was established, the execution of the painting in the dot-by-dot technique of pointillism remained as a chore before which most painters would have blanced, and which demanded even of Seurat an obsessive concentration. Pointillism, as it is usually called, or divisionism as the neo-impressionists preferred to call it, is a dead end in the maze of color theories branching out from Delacroix's rediscovery of reds in greens, purples in yellows, of vibrations and countervibrations between the color elements of a painting that led, on one direction, to the even more broken color of impressionism. The work of the scientists who investigated the physical [p. 331] laws of light and color was known to the impressionists and probably influenced them to some degree in a most informal way. But there is nothing informal in the act of Seurat; he studied these theories and applied them methodically.

Where Monet would paint a large green area of foliage with many shades of green and occasional flicks of pure yellow or pure blue, allowing these tints and colors to be more or less blended by the eye, Seurat attempted to analyze the exact proportions of the components of a tint, to separat them into the colors of the spectrum, and then to apply them with scientific precision so that their optical blendign would produce not only the tint but the degree of vibration he wanted. The surface of his canvas becomes a kind of "molecular dance" in contradiction to the absolute precision of the forms within which these myriads and myriads and myriads of dots spin and quiver. In his preliminary black and white studies for a pictucre, Seurat approximated the effect of pointillist color by drawing, in his own way, on charcoal paper with black wax crayon [402] Charcoal paper has a fine but conspicuous grain that allows flecks of white to show through the black, to a degree dependent on the pressure of the crayon. The crayon is always pure black; grays are produced by the interspeckling of the paper's grain, just as tones and colors in the completed painting are produced by the interspeckling of calculated quantities of the component colors.

There is an essential objection to pointillist technique which was made at the time and is still legitimate in spite of the fact that Seurat's stature among recent painters makes a statement of this objection heretical. But there is no point in pretending that it is possible to look at a painting by Seurat without being first of all conscious of the novelty of its technique. One must somehow manage to cross the barrier of agonizingly metriculous and desperately sincere application of an elementary scientific principle before one is free to enjoy a work of art. Access to Seurat's studio is still throuh his laboratory, and one is required to watch him at work there before one is allowed to see the pictures.

But once this privilege is granted, the pictures are worth the wait. According to his own aesthetic, which he once formulatd in a didactic outline, Seurat left no room for intuition in the creation of a work of art. But it is impossible to look at La Grande Jatte and believe that it was produced entirely by rule. If it observes rules more rigorously than painting had ever done before, these rules are still subject to the sensibilities of the artist who applied them. And for that matter, there is not very much in Seurat's rules that was new. As if it should come as a revelation, Seurat propounded a set of general principles that had been observed for centures. Some of them were truisms that could have ben picked up en route during study in any sound academic painter's studio, such as the rule that dark tones and cold colors suggest sadness, that gayety is suggested by luminous tones and warm colors. Since the Renaissance, and perhaps earlier than that, Seurat's principles had been familiar to any thoughtful painter. In reading accounts by his followers one is amazed at the long-faced reverence with which Seruat's restatement of a pedant's primer seems to have been greeted. Only the theory of optical color was new, or newish.

Seurat was also interested in discovering a scientific basis for pictorial composition, and he investigated among others a famous mathematical formula called the "golden section." Also called the "divine proportion" or "gate of harmony", it was formulated by the architect and engineer, Vitruvius, in the first century B.C. and revived in the Renaissance. In 1509 it was published in a book by a Bolognese monk, Luca Pacioli, illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci, who had made his own investigations of the mathematical bases of harmony. And we will see it picked up again in the twentieth century by certain cubists, and adopted as a name for their group. Applied as a test to many a great paintng or building or art object, the "golden section" fits perfectly. Applied in the same way to some of the worst pictures or buildings or objects ever painted or built or manufactured, it works just as well. Used as a formula for creation it may yield results similar to those more effectively arrived at by a combination of general principles and intuition. Analogies may be made: in music, for instance, it is possible to create a fugue that is technically impeccable, by rule, yet an offense to the ear. In cookery it is possible to follow a recipe closely and produce a dish that is just edible where a master chef would produce a delight from what would seem to be the same preparation of the same ingredients. The point of insisting on all these objections to Seurat's fascination with formula, objections that may sound ill-tempered or uncharitable, is only to insist that La Grande Jatte as a work of art rises above its demonstration of codified rules. Seurat was a very young man who was investigating the whole process of creative effort, begining with its mechanics. One can imagine him, had he lived, passing through a crisis similar to Renoir's, from the other direction. Where Renoir--rightly--mistrusted the spontaneous, unstudied effects of impressionism and recognized the need for self-discipline, so Seurat might have--rightly--relaxed his obsession with "scientific" calculation as the way to expression, putting his faith first in impulse, and second in its discipline, as Renoir did after his period of reorientation.

As it was, Seurat produced a cycle of paintings demonstrating, systematically, the different principles of his aesthetic, before his death at the age of only thirty-two. La Grande Jatte, the first of the cycle, was exhibited in 1886 in the eighth, and last, impressionist group show. The group was breaking up; this was the first exhibition in four years, and neither Renoir nor Monet participated. The great problem was what to do about La Grande Jatte and the other neo-impressionist paintings--including those of Pissarro, who was involved just then in his brief excursion into this field [405], and those of his son Lucien, who was exhibiting for the first time, and those of Paul Signac, whose name is second only to Seurat's in neo-impressionism. Finally all these pictures were segregated in a room by themselves. The term neo-impressionism was coined in this year as a gesture on the part of Seurat and Signac. In spite of their departures from impressionist technique they thus acknowledged their debt to the men who had first explored the translation of light into pigment. But since the impressionist ideal was to capture the transient movment, and the neo-impressionist hope was to capture the essential quality of a scene and transfix it, the exhibition of 1886 must have been an oddly contradictory one. And it demonstrated that pure impressionism had served its purpose and reached its end, as the funding members dropped away to solve special problems, and new recruits, like Seurat, used impressionism as a foundation for new structures. [pp. 328-333]

Other Neo-impressionists
Neo-impressionism attracted a large number of followers, as might be expected of a manner offering so explicit a formula. Seurat was disturbed by the size of the number, since none of them had the scientific perseverance that was prerequisite to neo-impressionism if it was to be more than formula painting. Nor did many of them have the creative sinsibility that was also necessary although Seurat denied it. After Seurat's death his leadership was taken over by Paul Signac [1863-1935]. Signac was four years younger but had had as much to do with the origins of neo-impressionism as had Seurat himself. Signac, in fact, had converted Seurat to the work of the impressionists, objecting to the "dull" colors of Une Baignade when it was exhibited in the first Salon des Indépendants. The two [p. 338] men had met at the formation of the Societé des Indépendants, and Signac remained one of its hardest-working members and was its president for twenty-six years, beginning in 1908.

Signac was an attractive man, viorous, enthusiastic, and as outgoing as Seurat was secretive. These qualities are reflected in his painting. He keeps burstin out of the strait jacket of neo-impressionist precision to indulge himself in the joy of painting. He executed some pen-and-ink drawings in a rather painful dot technique which was practiced by several other members of the group, including occasionally Seurat, but he was more at home with a dashin form of divisionism in which broad strokes of color are patterned freely, rather than methodically and in watercolors where vivaciously sketched lines and spots of color sparkle against white paper [413]. His book From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism, published in 1889, is the classic doctrinaire reference on the school.

Among other followers, two are more distinguishable than most: Henri Edmond Cross [1856-1910], one of the founders of the Société, was more interested in emotional expression than in scientific theory, and sought it by usin the purest, brightest colors of any of the neo -impressionists, to the point even of using them arbitrarily without regard to the actual color of the objects painted. He thus anticipated, as will become apparent later, the work of the fauvist painters, including Matisse. And Maximilien Luce [1858-1941] painted some sensitive pictures remindful of Pissarro. Like Pissarro he abandoned neo-impressionism to revert to the fresher, more intimate effects of impressionism itself. [pp. 338-339]

[Canaday, John. Mainstreams of Modern Art. New York: Simon and Schustesr. 1961.]



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