Saturday, 5 January 2013

Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists

I would urge our members to visit this exhibition, which is at the NGV International until 17 March 2013. There is a range of pointillist works on display: not only by the main protagonists, Seurat and Signac, but also by a host of other exceptional artists: Pissarro, Maximilien Luce and Théo Van Rysselberghe among them.

I particularly liked the works by Luce and I went back to look at them a second time. The colours are glorious. Théo Van Rysselberghe's portraits also stood out, as did the collection of sublime seascapes in the dazzling light of the South of France.

The pictures in this exhibition can never be seen to their best advantage in black and white, which is why you should enjoy them at first hand. Pay a leisurely visit to our magnificent art gallery: enjoy the Radiance show, have lunch, browse the art books and postcards in the shop, enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit in the Members' Room, stroll through the Textiles Rooms on the top floor to see the display of beautifully designed ballet tutus. Go home with a smile on your face. It's as good as a couple of Prozacs and a stiff gin, and no side effects!
This exhibition is aptly named: the paintings are really radiant - they seem almost luminous. We are accustomed to the light and colour of the Impressionists, who obtained their effects by physically mixing the pigments on the palette. The Neo-Impressionists believed that to achieve the maximum luminosity of colour, it is necessary to present the pure colours separately and allow the viewer's eye and brain to blend them.

Georges Seurat founded the style of Divisionism, in which he divided shades of colour into individual dots of pure colour placed side by side. He took a scientific approach, concerned with colour theory. Divisionism developed into Pointillism, which is founded on the same principle, but is focused less on the pure technical aspect and more on the specific style of brushwork.

The reason why the pointillist paintings of the Neo-Impressionists seem brighter that those of painters who mix their pigments before applying them to the canvas, is partly because some of the white background remains visible between the dots, but mainly it is because placing the pure colours side by side on the canvas, avoids using subtractive colour.

This is where the technical colour theory comes in: when pigments are mixed, the resultant shade is achieved by partially absorbing (or subtracting) some wavelengths of light and not others. The mixed colour we see, depends on which part of the spectrum is not subtracted, and therefore remains visible.

Looking at the glowing pictures in this exhibition, the theory certainly seems to work! Of course, the downside of pointillism is that you don't have the brushwork that gives texture to a painting.

Another departure from the Impressionist way of working, is that the Neo-Impressionists eschewed the idea of painting en plein air, placing the impressions of light and colour on the canvas as the artist saw them. The Neo-Impressionists made sketches and drawings and they painted small studies which they then used to complete their paintings in the studio. In a way that brought them back again to the classical traditions shunned by the Impressionists.




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