Divided opinions on Divisionism

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

By the time you get to the end of the Divisionism exhibition, now showing at the National Art Center Tokyo, you realize that this strand in the history of art is more about the journey than the destination. It’s like traveling through a world that becomes increasingly less realistic but nevertheless interesting, only to arrive at the artistic equivalent of a drab, uninspiring office block.

Sourced from the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, the exhibition starts with beautiful Impressionist works, by Claude Monet and Alfred Sisely, then focuses on how artists progressively broke apart the elements of painting, until we reach the minimalism of the later works of Piet Mondrian, a Dutch artist who limited his expression to a grid of black lines on white, with some blocks filled in with primary colors.

Considering how arid and artistically unsatisfying the final destination of this artistic odyssey is, you could be forgiven for wanting to view the exhibition in reverse. Indeed, by starting with Mondrian and proceeding through the exhibition back to Monet, I was able to get a more satisfying sense of artistic progress, although one that ran counter to actual art history.

Divisionism was originally a term booted about among Impressionists to criticize members within their group, such as Georges Seurat, who were experimenting “excessively” with a pointillist technique. This involved applying disparate spots of paint to the canvas to create a kind of pixel effect. There are several impressive examples of this, from a couple of harbor scenes by Seurat to Paul Signac’s “Entrance to the Harbour of Marseille” (1886-7), which seems much more like a mosaic than a painting.

In this exhibition, however, the term Divisionism is used in a much more overarching and analytical sense. It also touches on Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Minimalism, and Abstract art, focusing on the impetus in all these movements to break down and divide the complex effects of traditional art into more basic components.

Despite the divisiveness of Divisionism, it also has something of a unifying purpose in that it seeks to restore a sense of unity to the art historical narrative, bringing together artists as diverse as Monet and Mondrian, and acting as a bridge between earlier academic art and the avant-gardism of the 20th century.

While some may not be convinced by this ambitious view of art history, it is certainly one that suits the Kröller-Müller’s collection, with its Mondrians, Monets and Van Goghs. The bottom line, however, is whether Divisionism, in its various stages, created great art. The results are mixed but veer more toward negative than positive territory.

One of the oddest paintings here is Paul Signac’s “The Dining Room, Opus 152″ (1886-7). This shows the muted tones of an interior skillfully “pointillized,” but there is something stiff and uncomfortable about the scene, like a photo for which the subjects had posed too long.

Perhaps the most interesting section for visitors is the Van Gogh section. The Dutch artist was introduced to pointillist technique by Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac. His “Interior of a Restaurant” (1887) is both a textbook attempt at the technique as well as something vivid and powerful. The artist clearly threw himself into the style with passion, and just as passionately distanced himself from it. But it clearly left its mark on subsequent works, including “The Sower” (1888) and “Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon” (1889), where it has mutated into the short, linear brush strokes that create lines of movement and energy through his paintings.

Another very effective pointillist work is “Twilight” by the Flemish painter Henry van der Velde, who uses the dots technique to capture the way things blend together in the twilight. In this work a figure walks toward a house that has merged into a band of trees, with only the chimney and a window giving us a subtle hint of the building that will soon be swallowed by darkness.

Dutch artist Jan Sluitjers is also very effective at capturing twilight effects in “Metamorphosis” (1908). This presents a view of dusk descending on an industrial area that owes more to Fauvism’s bold use of color than pointillism’s painstaking precision.

The selection of Mondrian paintings recap and telescope many of the developments already seen. From murky Impressionism, we quickly move through mosaic-like pointillism, to the still organic grid of “Composition No. II” (1913), and on to his geometric minimalism that serves as an effective if slightly brutal full stop for the exhibition.

“Divisionism from Van Gogh and Seurat to Mondrian” at The National Art Center, Tokyo runs till Dec. 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp