by Roderick Conway Morris

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Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
The Scheldt Upstream from Antwerp, Evening by Théo van Rysselberghe, 1892

French Revolution

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 May 2023


'A painter does better to start from the colours on his palette than from the colours in nature,' wrote Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Théo in 1883.

The idea would have astonished most artists at the time, whether traditionalists or Impressionists, the then dominant avant-garde movement. Yet the Dutch artist's words were prophetic.

What was later dubbed the First Impressionist Exhibition had taken place in 1874. The term 'Impressionists' was first used in a dismissive manner in the title of a damning review of the first show, but it stuck and the artists themselves had come to embrace it by their third group outing in 1877.

The Eighth, and last, Impressionist Exhibition was held in 1886. The movement had never been monolithic but broadly shared certain aims, such as the en plein air study of landscape and the depiction of what the novelist Émile Zola described as 'the heroism of modern life', as observed on urban streets, in bars, cabarets, dance halls, theatres, circuses and other popular resorts.

But personal antipathies within the group were becoming more acute. Degas and Manet had never got on and Renoir routinely described Pissarro as 'that Israelite'. Monet, Renoir and Sisley absented themselves from the show. And several others who were exhibiting objected to the inclusion of the brilliant young Pointillist painters Seurat and Signac, who ended up having to display their works in a separate room with Pissarro and his son Lucien.

What happened next is the subject of 'After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art' at the National Gallery. The title side-steps (unnecessarily) the use of the term Post-Impressionism, familiar since Roger Fry held his landmark exhibition 'Manet and the Post-Impressionists' at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910. Fry's title was the result of the understandable failure to think of a better description. As his fellow critic Desmond McCarthy related many years later: 'At last Roger, losing patience, said 'Oh, let's just call them Post-Impressionists. At any rate, they came after the Impressionists.'

Fry's observation of the French Post-Impressionists that they 'do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent of life,' could be applied to all three of the painters that are rightly given prominence at the beginning of the exhibition: Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. All three of them developed distinctive palettes and gave primacy to colour. None of them enjoyed the enormous international acclaim that they achieved after their deaths. Famously, Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Gauguin did somewhat better and Cezanne was selling fairly steadily by his demise and lived long enough to see Maurice Denis' large canvas 'Homage to Cézanne' (1900), depicting an appreciative group of fellow artists, who dubbed themselves the Nabis (from the Hebrew for prophets), gathered around a Cezanne still-life (one of half a dozen owned by Gauguin in the 1880s).

There are also two paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec in this section which highlight the unfortunate decision to exclude graphic pieces, of which he was one of the most prolific and inventive creators of the period. Indeed, works on paper - from fine-art prints, book and magazine illustrations to posters, theatre programmes and leaflets - experienced a remarkable flowering at this time and were as important to artists as diverse as Bernard, Bonnard, Denis, Gauguin, Matisse, Munch, Redon, Vuillard and Vallotton.

Also absent are any examples of Japanese art, notably of popular art by the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige, whose impact was more or less ubiquitous during this period, no artist's studio being complete without its kimonos, fans, ceramics and colourful wood-block prints.

A combination of Japanese prints, stained-glass windows and the cloisonné enamelling employed in ancient and medieval decorative art inspired Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin to develop a method described as Cloisonnism, marked by flat colour divided by strong black lines. Anquetin produced some particularly evocative and atmospheric images, as witnessed by his 'Avenue de Clichy, Five O'clock in the Evening' (1887), but sadly he gave up the style after only six years and took to painting in a more conventional fashion.

While Paris and its surrounding countryside had been the epicentre of the Impressionist productions, the late 1880s saw the emergence of a rival centre of artistic activity: Pont-Aven, a picturesque tidal river port near the southern coast of Brittany, made accessible by the expansion of the railway network.

Artists such as Bernard and Gauguin were enchanted by the traditional costumes still worn there, the local devotional sculptures and prevailing religiosity, and felt they were connecting with some simpler, more primitive, more authentic past. This stimulated new subject matter and manners of painting. As Bernard wrote: 'I yielded to colour. I thought that brilliance was everything.' Gauguin's pursuit of the unspoiled later took him to Tahiti, where he believed he had finally 'escaped everything that is artificial and conventional.'

Gauguin's 'Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with Angel)', which drew on Japanese prints, was also unquestionably influenced by Bernard's 'Buckwheat Harvest' and 'The Pardon, Breton Women in a Meadow', with their startling, solid colour backgrounds (red and green respectively) - all three canvases painted in 1888. But the two men fell out three years later over which of them had been the true founder of what came to be called the Pont-Aven School, also known as Synthetism.

Also in 1888, Paul Sérusier joined his friend Bernard in Pont-Aven. Under the guidance of Gauguin, the aspiring 24-year-old painted 'Landscape in the Bois d'Amour', an image of the leafy riverside walk upstream from the village, representing the water, trees and their reflections in the river in bold blocks of colour. So powerful was the impact of this small piece that it stimulated the formation of the Nabis group of artists, who took the painting as their emblem and dubbed it 'The Talisman'. Denis provided the theoretical basis for the enterprise, writing in 1890: 'Remember that a painting - before being a war horse, a female nude or a story of some sort - is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.'

Yet Sérusier's work did not lead to the creation of further near-abstract paintings and pure abstraction was not pursued for another twenty years or more by such pioneers of the genre as Kandinsky and Mondrian.

Despite the hostility of a number of the Impressionists and being put in virtual quarantine in a separate room at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, the paintings of Seurat and Signac continued to gain admirers. Their technique was based on scientific discoveries about the nature of light and used the juxtaposing of dots or tiny blocks of colour to build up the image. The sympathetic critic Félix Fénéon originally called the style Neo-Impressionism, but it was also known variously as the 'dot' method, Divisionism and Pointillism (the most common term today).

The tragically early death in 1891 at the age of 32 of Seurat, the originator of the style - whose 'La Grande Jatte' had provided, in the words of his highly talented follower Signac, 'the manifesto painting' of the movement - deprived it of one of its most brilliant exponents. But the likes of Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross continued to produce striking works during the 1890s and the technique was rapidly mastered elsewhere, especially in Belgium where it was adopted by Jan Toorop, Henry van de Velde and Théo van Rysselberghe.

The explosion of colour that characterized the fin de siècle avant-garde reached a kind of logical conclusion with the appearance of the Fauves, one of whose primary inspirations was Van Gogh.

Their name was somewhat accidental but proved apt. It derived from a comment by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles made after seeing in Room Seven of the Salon d'Automne of 1905 a classical statue of a young boy by Albert Marque sharing the space with some wildly colourful works by Matisse, Derain, Marquet and Vlaminck and a gigantic and even more exotic canvas by the 60-year-old tax officer Douanier Rousseau, one of whose tigers had been described by Vallotton as 'the alpha and omega of art'.

Rousseau's work exhibited on this occasion was titled: 'The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope', and was accompanied by a caption that read: 'The lion, being hungry, leaps on an antelope and devours it. The panther awaits anxiously for the moment when it too can have its share. Some carnivorous birds have each torn a piece from the poor animal, who is shedding a tear. Setting sun.' Vauxcelles dryly remarked: 'Ah, Donatello parmi les fauves' (Donatello among the wild beasts).

As Derain later recalled: 'We treated colour like sticks of dynamite, exploding them to produce light. The idea that everything could be elevated above reality was marvellous in its pristine freshness. The great thing about our experiment was that it freed painting from all imitative or conventional contexts.'

After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art; National Gallery, London; 25 March - 13 August 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024