Saturday, 6 September 2008


an exhibition at the Musee Angladon
Avignon, Summer 2006

Paul Signac loved sailing—and his boat L'Olympia gave him the freedom to prowl the coastline of France. He was one of the first of the Paris artists to travel to the south of France, most memorably visiting the hospitalised Van Gogh in Arles in 1889. But it was only after the death of Georges Seurat that he put his sailboat into port at St Tropez, and made his first attempts at painting in watercolours. He wrote his friend Camille Pissarro that watercolours weren't 'working' for him, but he felt they were a 'valuable means of collecting information'. Yet within two years, in 1894, Signac had not only resolved to spend his summers in the South, but had rejected the Impressionist idea of painting with oils in the open air. Thus, for most of the year he would live in the Midi, travel in his boat, working in watercolours and pen and ink sketches. Then he would return to his Paris studio for the winter, and turn that 'information' into the oils we associate with the pointillism of Neo-Impressionism.

The somewhat sad beauty of this exhibition ‘Signac in Provence’ lies in the way it illustrates how radical the dichotomy of Signac's working life actually was. His sketches and watercolours teem with life and motion, the use of colour is bold and improvisational, the ink lines often play sharply with the watercolour itself. They are polar opposites to the restraint of his oils, where the subject matter becomes merely a framework for an exercise in the play of light and colour. The relaxed confines of the Musee Angladon, home of the collection of the industrialist Jacques Doucet, add to the impact of the show. The Avignon setting makes much of the work inside seem already familiar. The Angladon also reminds one of the comfortable bourgeois setting of the French art world of the time, which reinforce the many paradoxes which arise from the contradictions in Signac's life and work.

He was born in 1863 in Paris; his family were saddlers to French society. After his father's death in 1880, the 16 year old Signac quit his architectural studies to join the bohemian art world of Monmartre. But with family support; how many struggling teenage artists could buy their first Cezanne before selling a painting of their own? Teaching himself by studying artists he admired, particularly Delacroix and Monet, at 19 Signac had his own studio and was already summering on the coast in Normandy.

His family had moved to Asnieres, outside Paris. In 1884, he joined the Societe des Artistes Independents, and at their first salon met Georges Seurat, who was exhibiting ‘Bathers at Asnieres‘ there. They became close friends and collaborators in pointillism. In 1885 he met Pissarro, who with his customary enthusiasm grabbed pointillism and integrated it into his own Impressionism. Through Pissarro, Signac exhibited at the last Impressionist exhibition, in 1886; it was then that Felix Feneon coined the term 'Neo-Impressionism'. In a work like 'Boulevard de Clichy (1886—not in this exhibition) you can see Pissarro's influence combining with Seurat's, but it was Seurat's whose ideas would become more profound for Signac, perhaps to his detriment.

Ebullient and gregarious, like Pissarro, Signac was an odd match for the taciturn, withdrawn Seurat, but he took on the task of creating an aesthetic to turn Seurat's work into a movement. Signac preferred the term 'divisionism' for what he and Seurat were doing; his view was that of a modernist concerned with reducing art to its elements. He also seemed torn between painting itself and theorising about it. Indeed, Seurat's essay, ‘From Delacroix to Neo Impressionism’ (1899) not only lays bare his own influences but was one of the major critical works of the period. He became obsessed with new scientific theories on the physics of light and our senses' physical reactions to colour. Seurat’s concern with working out these effects on canvas meant his subject matter increasingly became a formality.

This played to another paradox: the bourgeois Signac was, again like Pissarro, a committed anarchist. He saw divisionism as a political engagement, confirming the importance of the art itself over the subject matter. In another sense, his choice of the Midi was a way of suggesting that a more natural order existed outside urban society. That these concepts might contradict seems to have bothered him no more than the transformation of the bubbling improvisation of his summer’s work into the colder, more distant and formal finished product of his studios. Others could feel the conflict. At one point Pissarro even urged his friend to reconsider his artistic temperament, and 'evolve toward a freer art more based on feeling', in effect, the opposite of Seurat's scientific approach.

The conclusion this exhibition suggests is that Signac did exactly what Pissaros suggested, but for most part in private, in the Mediterranean, in his summer's gathering of ideas, to be transformed into the templates of his more formal Parisian oils. But one can see the influence of his sketching on the very first oils one encounters in the exhibition: the blue and yellow shimmering effect of sunlight in St. Tropez: Sunset Over The Town (1892) is stunning, while in St. Tropez: After the Storm, both the scale and the mix of orange and yellow seem audaciously unusual for Signac. He would move to a more mosaic patterned pointillism, which is reflected magnificently in the melding of leaves and mountains in Juan les Pins (1914), and his oils would become more abstracted, as in the white on white effect of Vieux Port, Marseilles (1906). But his later watercolours, while incorporating the mosaic colour techniques, become, if anything, more dynamic, sometimes, as with Funeral at Bourg St Andeol (1926) suggesting the humour of a Daumier.

Thus Signac's studies are often more interesting than the finished works. He appears to have realised this himself; he exhibited three watercolour 'annotations' at the first Neo-Impressionist exhibition, and argued at the Vienna Sezession of 1900 that there were no grounds for the avant-garde to 'differentiate between oil-based and water-based art.' As he grew older, Signac produced fewer and fewer oils, but grew more prolific in watercolour. He painted along coastlines from Rotterdam to Constantinople, but always returned to the South of France. The vibrancy of the work he produced there argues that Signac may have been more compelling, if less theoretically important, had he not held the reins so tightly while working in oil. The Angladon should be congratulated for reminding us of this.

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