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Thursday, January 12, 2012


Seurat's dots, Circus Side Show
(detail), 1887-88, Georges Seurat
We are often tempted, in our simplistic minds, to think that which followed Impressionism was automatically Post-Impressionism. And indeed, many art history books tend to take that approach, squeezing any number of quite dissimilar styles into one unholy lump. In fact, what followed Impressionism was a rather disparate fragmentation of styles. Seurat's Pointillism (right) is an example. Van Gogh's Expressionism is another. Two more unlike styles, methods, and mindsets in painting could hardly be imagined. The heavy, lumpy, solidity of Cezanne's work is yet another direction, as was the expressive Symbolism of Gauguin, or the Fauvist colors of Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck (below).

Les Ramasseurs de Pommes de Terre, 1905,
Maurice de Vlaminck

By the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, the artistic climate was changing. Van Gogh had arrived in Paris. George Seurat was presenting a painting that would mark the dawn of a sort of "scientific impressionism." Emile Zola was publishing a novel titled, L'Oeuver which was a thinly disguised devaluation of Impressionism and its painting icons, especially the work of Cezanne. And on yet another front, the journal, Le Figaro  published Jean Moreas' Symbolist Manifesto. As is often the case, that which is "new" attracts attention. Impression might appear fresh to the conservative art buyer only just coming around to accepting it's broken color and painting technique, but to the remnants of the Impressionist painters, and the next generation always waiting in the wings, it was old hat. It was a style to be imitated, as indeed was happening among the ever-present second echelon of less-talented artists of the time. Gauguin was new, Cezanne was new, Van Gogh was new; and it was to these relatively obscure creative geniuses to whom the in-crowd of French art gravitated in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

Orpheus, 1903-10, Odilon Redon
Perhaps the most exciting and most promising of all the "new" movements in art at the time was that of Symbolism. This group, led by Odilon Redon and including Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Emile Bernard among others, worshiped the work of Gauguin in content and Van Gogh in his expressive use of color. They returned to many of the literary and mythological subjects the Impressionist had rejected in favor of the here and now, in seeking an art that was beyond reality, not just illustrations of mythical legends in an academic style, but a probing look at the meaning of such legends, trying to make improbable beings live by putting the visible at the service of the invisible.  Redon's Orpheus (left), painted around 1903, is an excellent example of this effort. His insightful, Symbolist exposition of the Greek legend in many ways prefigures trends toward abstraction, Surrealism, and the various mystical art movements that came to the foreground during the first decades of the 20th century. Referring to this and other new art directions that followed Impresionism as merely Post-Iimpression, is like saying the horse and buggy was followed by cars.

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