Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 26, 2015
Jane Block and Ellen W. Lee, eds. The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886‒1904 Exh. cat. New Haven and Indianapolis: Yale University Press in association with Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2014. 256 pp.; 105 color ills.; 3 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300190847)
Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886–1904
Exhibition schedule: ING Cultural Centre, Brussels, February 19‒May 18, 2014 (under the title TO THE POINT—The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886‒1904); Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, June 15‒September 17, 2014
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George Morren. Sunday Afternoon (1892). Oil on canvas. 20 x 29-5/16 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Holliday Collection, 79.278. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

“While George Seurat was the founder of the Neo-Impressionist movement, he was not the first to create portraits in the style”: so announces an initial wall text for Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886–1904 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, curated by Ellen W. Lee and Jane Block. These words accompany a line of four portraits (one by Vincent van Gogh, two by Albert Dubois-Pillets, and one by Achille Laugé), which in turn reveal exciting curatorial minds at work—Face to Face is not yet another exhibition with an object list recycling famous works by famous names. Despite Paul Signac’s customary appearance as a quintessential Neo-Impressionist—he is represented by three paintings, including the 1890 Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon—the real stunners of this exhibition are Belgian and Dutch artists, such as William Jelley, Georges Lemmen, George Morren, Jan Toorop, and Henry van de Velde.

Among the first four paintings in Gallery 1, Dubois-Pillet’s quirky Portrait of Mademoiselle B. or The Lady in the White Dress (1886–87) and Portrait of Monsieur Pool (ca. 1887) recall what Robert Herbert said nearly half a century ago about Neo-Impressionism:

A Neo-Impressionist painting . . . rubs our mind with contradictory feelings. At certain times we sense the methodical structure so strongly that we are inclined to dismiss the artist as a mere automaton, who must have filled his picture with thousands of piston-like movements of his arm, no more inspired than a man on an assembly line who repeats the same motion over and over again. At other times, the remarkable vibrations of color makes us think of the artist as the opposite of the robot, as a kind of alchemist who concocts his chromatic fantasies out of the vials and philtres of scientific theory, and who surrounds himself with the mumbo-jumbo of pseudo-scientific explanations. (Robert L. Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, exh. cat., New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1968, 14)

From Dubois-Pillet’s brush-tips issue the haze, disorientation, a not entirely pleasant sense of unreality, and disintegration marking the alchemical aspect of Neo-Impressionism that the Symbolists prized. Indeed, it is hard not to think that there is something wrong with Mademoiselle B. or her mind. Sitting against the herbaceous arabesques—crawling and spreading uncontrollably behind her, taking over the indeterminate pictorial space like some invasive species—Mademoiselle B. appears unnaturally poised. Her pale skin, despite the artifice of maquillage, seems bloodless, and her subdued white dress, with the corsage of purple hydrangea on her bosom, does nothing to impart life to its wearer. Similarly, Dubois-Pillet’s Portrait of Monsieur Pool conveys the eerie vacuity and fragility of masculinity. Viewers can see Pool’s virile signs in his salt-and-pepper crew cut, ample moustache with bushy ends, military uniform, epaulettes, medal, and matching gold buttons; but his masculinity is like that of a doll—strangely frozen, inactive, and lifeless in endless dots, echoing the ill-described flowers behind him on the wall, numbingly repeating in diamond compartments. Flanking the two Dubois-Pillets, two self-portraits—the 1895–96 Laugé and the 1897 Van Gogh—also show that “chromatic fantasies” are more convincing and immediate to the viewer than the “mumbo-jumbo of pseudo-scientific explanations.” Divorced from his usual avant-garde equals like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Gauguin, and put next to the likes of Dubois-Pillet and Laugé, Van Gogh looks fresh, appearing renewed in his misadventures through other realities.

“In Neo-Impressionism,” Herbert writes, “the Symbolists particularly admired the stripping away of the casual and accidental features of reality to reveal the ‘essence’ of form” (Neo-Impressionism, 15). Yet, not infrequently, Belgian and Dutch portraits in the exhibition Face to Face activate a hunger for the “essence” in the vestiges of the “casual and accidental,” not yet completely “stripped away”; this complicates the notion of the new movement’s break from Impressionism, which captured “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.” Rather than a clean break, it seems that some Belgian and Dutch pointillist artists found the uncompleted process of “stripping” itself compelling. In Jelley’s Portrait of Alfred Verhaeren (ca. 1890) and Van de Velde’s Portrait of Laurent in Blankenberghe (ca. 1888), for example, the Impressionist pursuit of transience coexists with the pointillist distilling of the essential form, contradicting the notion that time-consuming dotted facture cannot compete with quick brushstrokes in rendering fleeting moments. Glowing in warm light, Alfred’s body, laboriously described in small dots, seems to be stopped at a particular moment, with his face full of jovial but inconsequential thoughts. In the Van de Velde, the shady interior in the foreground is balanced against the shimmering vista of the seashore in the back. The sitter is reading. No obvious contrivance and ceremony of orchid-holding, top-hat-and-walking-stick-holding, and a vortex of ludicrously colored patterns are here, as in Signac’s portrait of Fénéon, who advocated “sacrificing . . . the fleeting to the permanent” (Félix Fénéon, “Signac,” Les hommes d’aujourd’hui, no. 373 (1890), reprinted in Félix Fénéon, Oeuvres plus que complètes, vol. 1, ed., Joan U. Halperin, Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1970, 177). Van de Velde depicts a wholly forgettable, insignificant act of reading by the beach; but in that picturing a fantasy of the “essence” beyond time is enabled, albeit in bits.

That said, the two portraits are undeniably bourgeois, and they lack the kind of anxiety and doubt unexpectedly expressed in Morren’s Sunday Afternoon (1892), characterized by its dissonantly yellow light, and Laugé’s portrait of his wife (1899) and his genre painting Before the Window (1899), both of which are bathed in deathly, alienating blue light. Considering the fact that the Morren and the Laugés treat subject matters—quiet women and their domesticity—that are custom-made for the polite society, the discomfort the paintings generate in the viewers may seem odd, but this is what they are supposed to do: Neo-Impressionists “made no concession to bourgeois taste” (“L’Exposition des impressionnistes,” La République française, May 17, 1886, 3). Perhaps, following Herbert’s logic and Fénéon’s argument, we cannot call the wonderful pointillist Jelley and Van de Velde Neo-Impressionist. Neo-Impressionism was, and is still, an art of political dissidents.

That is also my only point of concern with Face to Face. Conceptually, the exhibition and its catalogue focus on theories of color while marginalizing the political theories of anarchism that animated many of the painters. Apart from the fact that the “degree to which Neo-Impressionist technique can be called ‘scientific’ lies in the realm of metaphor and style” (Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, 20)—and “to appear as technicians of art” was “their wish” (i.e., they were not scientists)—the political conviction against bourgeois ideology was central to the making of Neo-Impressionism, and to de-politicize the movement seems historically inadvisable. Having a few brief and isolated mentions of anarchism in the catalogue and producing a separate video lasting a little more than three minutes on the movement’s politics do not make up for the exhibition’s overall disregard for the radical nature of Neo-Impressionism. In Neo-Impressionism and the Search for Solid Ground: Art, Science, and Anarchism in Fin-de-Siècle France (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), John Hutton warns that studies of Neo-Impressionism are too often reduced to “a discussion of formal technique in gratuitous exile from the social concerns the technique was intended in part to address” (5). In Neo-Impressionism and Anarchism in Fin-de-Siècle France: Painting, Politics and Landscape (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), Robyn Roslak also emphasizes Neo-Impressionists’ “political commitment to the anarchist movement,” calling “science, decoration, and the ideal or utopian” as “interlocking themes” for Neo-Impressionism (3). Furthermore, as Roslak notes, the utopian pursuit was linked to Neo-Impressionism’s Symbolist bent (“alchemy,” in Herbert’s word), and it engendered “works of art expressing a different reality than that found in the ordinary world” (1). Even in portraits of respectable society, Neo-Impressionist facture enables articulations of doubt and anxiety (modern subjectivity is divided into too many dots, visualizing the difficulty of the unified, coherent self).

The longing for other realities and extraordinary worlds is glimpsed in some of the paintings comprising Face to Face. In discussions of the history of portraiture and Neo-Impressionists, the catalogue evades this important issue: how a loss of bodily cohesion in a person’s likeness can reflect the anarchist advocacy of the abolition of structured government. Instead, the catalogue mentions Charles Baudelaire’s distinction between the portraiture of “history” and “fiction” (2–3), and, rather than linking this to Symbolism and the world beyond the visible as a political alternative, veers into a discussion of photography and Neo-Impressionism. The catalogue reads, “The popularity of the portrait photograph . . . freed the painter to explore inner personalities” (3), but “inner personalities” were constructed in photographs as well, and photographic technology did not produce or legitimize avant-garde art. More importantly, however, the divergence of “inner personalities” from middle-class values informs Neo-Impressionists’ anarchism, and yet this goes unnoticed in the catalogue.

Neo-Impressionist portraiture shows the constructedness and fragility of personhood (Tamar Garb, Bodies of Modernity: Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siècle France, London: Thames and Hudson, 1998, 43.). The “constructions of the perceivable” and “ambiguous visibility” (Linda Nochlin, Representing Women, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999, 228) are central ideas of Neo-Impressionism—even in its portraiture. In Neo-Impressionist politics, the language of optical science and the experience of optical magic engender a dreamy spectacle that is at varying degrees unhinged or alienated from normative, middle-class reality. For this reason, for the viewers who recognize the absence of the historical discourse centering on discontent and longing for better lives, the exhibition Face to Face documents the process of the de-politicization of Neo-Impressionism, and reveals how safe and respectable it is today. Alternately, one can argue, despite more than one hundred years of commodification, some Neo-Impressionist works still make viewers anxious and uneasy, while leaving such feelings unexplained. Nonetheless, Face to Face is overall a remarkable exhibition; its selection of lesser-known works packs the power of surprise, making an important contribution in helping to illuminate the international scope of pointillism and the diversity of its practitioners.

Jongwoo Jeremy Kim
Associate Professor, Hite Art Institute, Department of Fine Arts, University of Louisville

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.