The Jacquemart-André museum in Paris presents a very nice exhibition around Paul Signac, a leading figure and theoretician of neo-impressionism, who worked all his life around color, by making the keys vibrate on the canvas, or, later , by juxtaposing the colors with watercolors (until July 19, 2021).
The exhibition at the Jacquemart-André museum is not strictly speaking a retrospective. It is made up from a private collection which nevertheless retraces the entire career of Paul Signac (1863-1935). "It's a family collection really designed around Signac and neo-impressionism, a very coherent and structured core" , underlines Eléonore Lacaille, the museum's exhibition manager. The identity of the collectors remains top secret, we will not know more, not even their nationality.
"Signac comes from a bourgeois family, he is self-taught. He had a great aesthetic shock when he discovered Claude Monet's first monographic exhibition in 1880" , explains Eléonore Lacaille. Two first works of the painter show the influence of Impressionism on the young painter. His meeting in 1884 with Georges Seurat, who became his friend, was decisive. Seurat is the first to practice the technique of division of tones and to juxtapose pure colors, to make them vibrate. The mixing is done in the eye of the beholder, not on the palette. Signac will quickly adopt his technique.
One should not speak of pointillism, underlines Eléonore Lacaille, "a term that the artists themselves reject". Even if at the beginning, they often paint points, the Signac touch in particular will widen, lengthen, cross. "The neo-impressionist technique is long and rigorous: you have to apply the keys one by one and color by color. Between two colors, you have to wait for the first to dry." A job impossible to do in the open air. The neo-impressionists therefore work in workshops, unlike the impressionists who paint in the open air. Signac, however, likes to work outdoors to carry out studies, which he then reworks in the workshop.
Signac painted his first neo-impressionist canvases on the banks of the Seine, near Asnières, where he lived, and in Brittany: increasingly geometric landscapes where he played with light on the water. Seurat's death in 1891 came as a shock to him, while the movement was criticized from all sides. But he took up the torch and became the spearhead of neo-impressionism. He has the revelation in Saint-Tropez where he falls in love with the colors and the light of the south. "I have here something to work on throughout my existence – it is the happiness that I have just discovered," he wrote to his mother. Saint-Tropez will be its only subject for five years.
Later, he will also go to Venice where, far from any realism, he will paint gondolas in purple, San Marco in red. "Works that will influence avant-garde artists like Matisse" , underlines Eléonore Lacaille.
A large section of the exhibition is devoted to other artists of the movement, who have sometimes only passed by. There are figures known as Pissarro, one of the first with Signac to adopt the neo-impressionist technique, with particularly fine touches in rural scenes. But it will detach itself from it quite quickly, because of the time and the work it requires. Lesser known, Achille Laugé, an artist from Audois, paints a bright and vibrant flowering tree in white against a deep blue sky.
Maximilien Luce, close to Signac for his anarchist convictions, is interested in the popular world, representing a forge or a working-class interior. If he is the only one interested in social themes, he is also seduced by the lights of the South. Its port of Saint-Tropez is full of people, while Signac, a pure landscaper, represents few human figures, mainly interested in nature, in water (he is crazy about the sea and the boat). We will also see Belgian neo-impressionists like Georges Lemmen or Théo Van Rysselberghe who know how to give the particular light of the north.
Watercolor will take an increasingly important part in the work of Paul Signac. He got there a bit by chance, when he arrived in Saint-Tropez in 1892 and waited for his painter's equipment, says Eleonore Lacaille. At first, watercolor was used to work on the motif, and also to establish his own catalog raisonné, by resuming his compositions. But little by little, his watercolors become works in their own right, which he enhances with the pen.
"In watercolor, he does not divide, he does not make touches, but here too he plays on the oppositions of colors, on the white of the paper, to give relief" , underlines Eléonore Lacaille. And he never mixes his colors on paper.
It is in watercolor that Signac realizes his last project, a monumental project that occupied him for three years, from 1929 to 1931: for Gaston Lévy, the founder of Monoprix, the artist in love with the sea and boats made a report in a hundred ports in France from north to south. He paints the variety of skies and atmospheres, from the industrial ports of Saint-Nazaire or La Ciotat to the small fishing ports, from the harbor of Toulon under a stormy sky in the cheerful colors of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Signac, colored harmonies
158 boulevard Haussmann, Paris 8th
Until July 19, 2021