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"Paul Signac: Marter of Pointilism"
2001-06-15 until 2001-09-09
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, , NL

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 of society. 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.

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