Monday, November 12, 2007

Getting to the Point

Along with Georges Seurat, Paul Signac helped develop the painting style known as pointillism. Born November 11, 1863, Signac often takes second place to Seurat when people connect the dots between pointillism and its practitioners, but Signac deserves a place of prominence as well. In works such as The Port of Saint-Tropez (above, from 1901), we see Signac combining his love of sailing with his love of art. Thanks in some part to Signac’s “discovery” of the beauty of the French Riviera, Saint-Tropez and other beach towns soon became the destination of artists ranging from Renoir to Matisse, all drawn there by the dazzling blue water and stunning sunlight. Signac served as a missionary of sorts for artists seeking sensory overload, helping usher in the more colorful movements of early modern art.

Like Seurat, Signac belonged to the radical circles of the French art world. His Portrait of Felix Feneon (above, from 1890) shows his friend, the prominent anarchist, art critic, and art dealer, against a bold, carnivalesque backdrop almost mesmerizing in color and design. Signac and his friends, which included Alfred Jarry, hoped to turn not only the art world but all of society upside down, rocking the boat that had grown too steady, too comfortable for too many years. Just as the pointillist style sought to break down color into its most basic components before rebuilding it anew, these radical anarchists looked to tear down the establishment to build French society anew.

Signac’s greatest legacy may be in his influence on the Fauves, who followed him down to Saint-Tropez and took off in their own direction after following his lead. It is impossible to look at works today like Signac’s The Papal Palace, Avignon (above, from 1900) and not immediately think of Matisse or Derain, both of whom knew and worked with Signac on the Riviera. Although they didn’t share in his radical politics, they did share in his radical ideas about painting, especially the use of unreal color to express emotion and mood. The royal purple Papal Palace seems electrically charged here, as if it were made of neon. The pointillist technique used makes it almost jewel-like in its iridescence. Matisse flirted with pointillism early on before finding his own style, but he never gave up the lessons in color that Signac and the South of France taught him.

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