The term “neo-impressionism” suggests a sequel to impressionism and, just like with movie sequels, there is a faint lowering of expectations. But this is entirely the wrong way to approach “Neo-Impressionism: from Light to Color” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Some visitors will expect to see something from the earlier movement, and this box is ticked with a few relatively uninspiring seascapes by Claude Monet and some other impressionist works, such as Berthe Morisot’s lush, unfinished “The Garden at Bougival” (1884). But the sooner you shrug off the idea of this being “Impressionism II,” the sooner this show will start to make sense.
Despite its backward-looking name, neo-impressionism was in essence a radical “year zero” movement that wanted to reinvent the artistic wheel.
Impressionist painters had realized that keeping some dabs of color unmixed on the canvas would heighten the works’ power when they “mixed” in the eye, but those artists were still tied to brush strokes and a fidelity to what they saw. Neo-impressionists, by contrast, took the un-mixing of colors as a central tenet and built it into a comprehensive and methodical system.
Objects and scenes would be treated analytically, while the viewer’s moods would be manipulated through specific colors and the predominance of vertical or horizontal lines. Vertical lines were considered “gayer.”
The exhibition emphasizes this “scientific” side with a display of various color charts and some palettes belonging to famous neo-impressionists. While that of Georges Seurat is untidy like any artist’s, Paul Signac’s seems like something out of a laboratory — all neatly prepared patches of paint.
The emphasis on maintaining the purity of the colors pushed the neo-impressionists toward a pointillist style of painting — disparate dabs and dots of color. The subjects become simplified, stylized and rarefied — as if their Platonic essence were being extracted by a spectrograph.
Seurat’s “The Seine at Courbevoie” (1885) is a good example of the art that resulted. On a surface that seems to gently crackle with fuzz, the figure of the lady walking her dog becomes a doll-like cipher. Signac’s “Woman Doing Her Hair, Opus 227” (1892) transforms what should be an intimate scene into a purified and geometrical exercise.
This helped people to see familiar things in new ways, but it also represented a loss of expressive power. Also, in some works, the pointillist technique seems to make the sky hum as if it were infested with a locust swarm.
This approach finally began to give way to a deeper expressive impulse. This is explored in the more impressive latter part of the show, especially in the works of Henri-Edmond Cross, which point the way to the next big movement — the wild colors of the fauvists.
“Neo-Impressionism, from Light to Color” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs till March 29; open 9:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.tobikan.jp
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