Post-Impressionism: a Moment Suspended in Time
We’d like to take you down the artistic byways connecting two of the most fascinating periods in human history – the 19th and the 20th Centuries. We’ll do that by showing you extraordinary works and telling you unforgettable stories.
We chose post-Impressionism for you because it represents a moment suspended in time between the 19th Century’s greatest artistic revolution and the new modern art of the 20th.
The first thing we should ask ourselves is: what is post-Impressionism?
The term was first officially used in London in 1910 by the English critic Roger Fry, who curated the Manet et les Post-Impressionistes exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, presenting painters like Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
The post-Impressionist generation was heterogeneous, exploring many of the anti-academic trails pioneered by Monet, Renoir, Morisot and their colleagues.
Principal gathering place for artists experimenting with the new genre was the Salon des Artistes Indépendants, which opened on 1 December 1884 in Paris.
Two years later, introducing the independent artists’ second show with his catalogue, Les Impressionists en 1886, art critic Félix Féneon declared, “With this exhibition, Impressionism is dead”. For as he looked at the works of the representatives of France’s most important 19th Century art movement, he realized how far they had moved towards new directions.
The catalogue, regarded as a sort of manifesto of neo-Impressionism, tried to explain the revolutionary way artists like Signac, Cross and Seurat (showing his best-known work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”) used colour. Their works were all hung in the same room at the exhibition.
Unlike neo-Impressionism, which was characterized by a new theory of colour, post-Impressionism was not so much a homogeneous current as an artistic and cultural climate that developed and spread in France between the last decades of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th.
Around 1880, breaking with the naturalism of Impressionism, a number of young artists started developing independent styles which they used to express emotions, as opposed to simple optical impressions, and to concentrate on subjects with deeper symbolism.
Increasingly, the art of those painters became characterized by greater individual and personal analysis. Art was starting to leave behind its role as a window on the world, becoming instead a window on the soul and inner world of the artist.
At the point of contact between symbolism and Impressionism, artists seemed, through their work, to be responding to a social and psychological need for a kind of sensory introspection.
Nature was bending and submitting to the will of the artist.
The 19th Century, with its major scientific and technological discoveries, saw the birth of photography and the cinema. These incredible new instruments made it possible to reproduce the real world with a high degree of realism, so that painting was no longer required to imitate reality.
The primary objective of artists at the end of the 19th Century was to give greater consistency to the fleeting nature of impressions.
Let us now look at how, from post-Impressionism on, art set itself the sole and single of objective of communication and no longer concerned itself with reproduction.
In that art, form itself became reality and, abandoning any attempt to reproduce the visible world reproduction, it brought two subjects into communication – the artist and the spectator.
Central to the post-Impressionists’ exploration of space, light and colour is, according to Roger Fry, the figure of Cézanne, considered the “prototype” of the post-Impressionist artist.
Paul Cézanne tended to approach his work purely in terms of colour, although he painted a firmer, more balanced image than his Impressionist colleagues. Cézanne’s experiments were to have a major influence on Picasso and on the subsequent birth of Cubism. Giulio Carlo Argan writes: “[Cézanne’s] was not a technique that could immediately produce a visual sensation: it was an unparalleled means of investigating the profound structure of existence, an ontological kind of research, a sort of philosophy”. The artist from Aix-en-Provence was in fact not concerned with depicting the world as his eyes saw it: he sought to capture its essence.
In 1907, the Salon d’Automne commemorated him with a major retrospective exhibition which represented a watershed for a whole generation of artists, including Picasso. It laid the ground for Cubism and opened the way for other avant-garde movements.
Cézanne’s teacher was Camile Pissarro (Grand Mere, 1895), who, although he took part in every Impressionist exhibition from the 1870s on, displayed a less than wholehearted adhesion to the movement’s poetic idiom. His solid figures hardly ever seem to dissolve, showing that he never completely accepted the supremacy of the moment and of its fleeting nature.
Another key figure in post-Impressionism was Vincent Van Gogh who, in a letter dated 3 May 1888, told his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris: “But the painter of the future is a colourist such as there hasn’t been before. Manet prepared the ground, but you’re well aware that the Impressionists have already used stronger colour than Manet’s. This painter of the future, I can’t imagine him living in small restaurants, working with several false teeth and going into Zouave brothels like me. But it seems to me that I’m in the right when I feel it will come in a later generation and that in our case we have to do what our means allow us in that direction, without having doubts and without flinching.”
His words make it clear how the Dutch painter, as early as the 1880s, clearly planned to move beyond Impressionism. Although he based himself on his numerous personal talents, he was voicing feelings common among a new generation of painters who had grown up in Paris during the Impressionist revolution.
A very close colleague of Van Gogh’s was Paul Gauguin (Auti te Pape, 1891). After the Dutchman’s suicide in 1891, he left France for Tahiti, going on to Atuona, in the Marquesas Islands, where he spent the rest of his life.
Gauguin sought a kind of primitive purity, which he considered as the only way of developing a new, sacred form of painting unaffected by the filters which European culture had for years applied to original truth.
Essential to an understanding of the cultural climate at the time is his article “Noa-Noa”, published in 1897 in La Revue Blanche, the cultural bible of the period.
Toulouse-Lautrec produced an extraordinary poster for the publication in 1895 (La Revue Blanche, 1895).
A prominent figure in the post-Impressionist movement, Toulouse-Lautrec represents a special case on the art scene at the turn of the century. For he can be considered as the last of the Impressionists and at the same time as a precursor of Expressionism, with his sharp, nervous brush strokes, similar to those of Expressionist painters. He is famous for his posters, which reflect the atmosphere of the fin de siècle in Paris.
In 1884, Lautrec rented a studio in Montmartre, a district that had a huge influence on his life and work. The nightlife in Paris, with its theatres and cafè chantants, and with the artist’s perceptions constantly altered by drugs and alcohol, emerges violently from his paintings, many of which are to be found in the world’s greatest museums today.
With their radically independent styles and their search for new forms of artistic expression, the post-Impressionists had a profound influence on the new schools of painting at the turn of the century.
Sons of post-Impressionism include members of the Nabi group like Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard (Connaissance de la Déesse), the German Expressionists, the Fauves, and the founders of Cubism, Pablo Picasso (Contenue dans la Celestine III, 1968) and George Braque.