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"Paul Signac: Marter of Pointilism"
2001-06-15 until 2001-09-09
Van Gogh Museum
During the summer months the Van Gogh Museum presents the first retrospective of Paul Signac in almost forty
years. The exhibition has been compiled in conjunction with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Musée d'Orsay in
Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Many of Signac's finest paintings, watercolours and drawings
have been brought together for this show.
Often wrongly considered to be a mere follower of the better known
Georges Seurat, the exhibition follows the course of his varied career from his earliest works in an Impressionist style,
through the Neo-Impressionist phase to the evolution of a freer technique which verges on abstraction. The show
reveals his life-long struggle to develop an art which would be more structured than Impressionism, yet could still give
full vent to the expressive power of colour.
Paul Signac (1863-1935) was interested in painting from an early age. His parents wanted him to become an
architect, but he preferred sketching on the banks of the Seine. His first painting dates from 1881. To learn more
about art he visited exhibitions and galleries, studying the works of Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and the
Impressionists. The paintings he produced in this period bear witness to his youthful enthusiasm and his interest in
light and colour.
It was in 1884 that Signac first met Georges Seurat. He was deeply impressed by the latter's Bathers at Asnières
(1884, The National Gallery of Art, London) and Signac's style soon began to reflect Seurat's influence. This first
became evident in works such as The Gas Tanks at Clichy of 1886, painted entirely with small dabs of colour.
Signac and Seurat's work attracted much attention at the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886. The two artists
painted with carefully applied touches of bright colours, a technique some contemporary critics described as ‘painted
confetti' or even ‘artistic smallpox'. This new style, soon labelled Neo-Impressionism or Pointillism, attracted numerous
adherents. Signac played a crucial role alongside Seurat in developing and promoting this radical style which, unlike
Impressionism, emphasised discipline, structure and harmony.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a series of three works painted by Signac in the summer of 1891 at
Concarneau – Morning Calm. Opus 219, Evening Calm. Opus 220, Sardine Fishing. Opus 221. Each canvas
features a similar subject: the sea and fishing boats, but painted at different times of the day and from varying
distances. Signac's carefully contrived compositions and the orchestrated combinations of complementary colours
(ochre/orange and sky blue/violet) are intended to evoke moods and emotions rather than simply to imitate nature.
Distraught by the premature death of Seurat in 1891 and, disillusioned by the infighting amongst the avant-garde in
Paris, Signac moved to St Tropez in 1892. There he found the tranquillity in which to work and his new surroundings
provided fresh subjects, such as peaceful harbour views and the exotic countryside of the Midi. He began to adopt
stronger colours and a broader touch (Two Cypresses, 1893) and in his larger compositions (Women at the Well,
1892) emphasised further the decorative qualities of his art.
Throughout his life Signac remained commited to radical politics and like many artists and writers associated with
Neo-Impressionism he was closely associated with the anarchist movement. One of the most remarkable works of his
career (to be shown only in Amsterdam) is a vast canvas entitled The Wreckers (1897-1899). Signac's pick-axe
wielding wrecker is his most overt reference to his politics and the anarchist wish to sweep away the old, corrupt order
Young artists regularly visited Signac's studio at St Tropez in the first decade of the 20th
century. He became particularly attached to Henri Matisse, an enthusiastic admirer of his watercolours. Matisse
painted Luxe, calme, et volupté while staying with Signac in St Tropez. Others followed, like Marquet, Camoin, Valtat
and Van Dongen, and received a warm welcome from the Neo-Impressionist master. For many artists of the early 20th
century, from Kandinsky to Mondrian, Neo-Impressionism represented a transitional art form. In the development of
modern art Signac's work and his theoretical writings played a vital role.
The show ends, however, with Signac looking back to the 19th century. One of his last works is a watercolour of 1935
depicting the famous Yellow House in Arles where Van Gogh once lived and worked. Van Gogh and Signac
became friends during the former's period in Paris (1886-1888) and they painted together in the suburbs. Although
ten years his junior, Signac was able to encourage Van Gogh's experiments with Neo-Impressionism. Later, Signac
visited Van Gogh when he was in the hospital at Arles. He remained a loyal supporter of Van Gogh's work and was
instrumental in organising several of the earliest posthumous exhibitions of his art in the 1890s.