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Pointillism is now the focus of a high-calibre exhibition at the Albertina in Vienna
Vincent van Gogh, Interior of a Restaurant, 1887. Oil on Canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

VIENNA.- When Georges Seurat died unexpectedly in 1891 at the age of 31, his older colleague Camille Pissarro already had an inkling that Seurat’s “invention” was to have consequences for painting “that would be highly significant later on”. And indeed, with just a few pictures, Seurat had founded a style that would play a pioneering role in Modern Art: Pointillism.

This fascinating art movement is now the focus of a high-calibre exhibition at the Albertina, a presentation that completes the story of Modern Art with the significant chapter of Pointillism as its midwife: 100 selected masterpieces by the main representatives of this style, Seurat and Signac, as well as impressive paintings, watercolours, and drawings by modernist masters who were fascinated by this pointed technique—figures such as Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso—illustrate Pointillism’s breath-taking radiance and seminal impact.

Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh, organised in cooperation with the Kröller-Müller Museum, tells the success story of Pointillism from its creation in 1886 to its effects on the early 1930s. Beginning with the ground-breaking early works by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Théo van Rysselberghe, this exhibition draws an arc from Paul Signac’s and Henri-Edmond Cross’s transformation of the points into small squares and mosaics all the way to the masterpieces of Vincent Van Gogh, the vibrant colours of the Fauves, the decoratively placed dots in the cubist works of Pablo Picasso, and the abstract works of Piet Mondrian. This comprehensive presentation sheds light on the unique metamorphosis of the pointillist dot and for the first time makes a theme of those achievements of the pointillists that were subsequently harnessed by modernism.

Between Realism and Abstraction
The painters to whom we now refer to as “pointillists” due to their unusual techniques set out in 1886 to challenge the avant-garde tendencies of the impressionists, which had by then become de rigueur. And the subsequent development of painting in Paris towards the end of the 19th century would show just how right Pissarro’s prescient judgment was: the emphasis on surfaces and stylisation as well as the motionlessness and detachment of the depicted figures in the works by Seurat tell of increasing pictorial autonomy and, accordingly, of an abstraction of both content and form. This would soon move between two poles: the picture’s geometrisation and its ornamentalisation by means of arabesques. In reducing their painterly handwriting to the smallest possible artistic statement—the dot—Seurat, Signac, Pissarro, and Rysselberghe not only distanced themselves from the impressionists’ reproduction of fleeting moments, but also used their approach to question the entire centuries-old norm of painting according to nature in the form of brushstrokes. Points in solid colours, which the pointillists placed close together in keeping with the optical principle of colour mixing, generated a hitherto-unknown radiance and a multitude of chromatic impulses. It was thus that the realistic view of the world gave way to depictions of a synthetic reality—and in one fell swoop, the doors were wide open for Modernism.

Following Seurat’s death, it was above all his colleague Signac who develop the pointillist technique further: together with Henry-Edmond Cross, Signac increased luminosity, intensified colour contrasts, and coined the term “Divisionism”. His small, systematically placed points soon developed into lines meant to appear as a mixture of colours when viewed from an appropriate distance. With this more liberal approach, Signac liberated painters from the obligation to use dots, and it was thus that a younger generation—including Henri Matisse and his circle as well as Piet Mondrian— ultimately broke out of Seurat’s rigid system.

Vincent Van Gogh: An Individual Path
An important intermediary in this development was Vincent van Gogh, an outsider and brief adherent of Pointillism who set off in new directions. Van Gogh at first took up Seurat’s ideas with enthusiasm: his pallet became brighter and more luminous, and an abundant flurry of dots found entry into his landscapes. But the systematically dotted style never played a truly central role in Van Gogh’s output. The artist soon adopted a freer form of expression that better matched his nature: “It is working with points and similar elements that I hold to be the real discoveries; but we must already be at pains to ensure that this technique, just like any other, does not itself become a general dogma.” He said this in 1888, at which point he began countering the cool and rational pointillist style with his own individual expression and emotion.

Matisse, Mondrian, and Picasso
Something similar can be seen in the reception of Divisionism in the oeuvre of Henri Matisse. The founding Fauve had turned to this technique in two steps: 1897 saw him experiment with comma-like, impressionist micro-structures that are not dissimilar to Pissarro’s mode of painting, and in 1898 he intensified colours and contrasts, which subsequently led to a valid implementation of the divisionist method in term of both chromatic division and the use of dots.

Soon, Van Gogh, Matisse, and the Fauves moved Piet Mondrian, as well, to turn away from Pointillism. Under the influence of the luminist Jan Toorop, Mondrian used his paintings to deal above all with light effects, relying on motifs and an expressive power that had already become established in the works of Van Gogh and the anarchic art of the Fauves.

In the works of Pablo Picasso, as well, Pointillism and its pioneering ideas did not go unnoticed. At altogether three junctures in his career—1901, 1914, and 1917—the Spanish artist dealt playfully with the output of Seurat and integrated points into his own work. The first time he did so, Picasso was motivated by his desire to conform to the times; later on, though, he used loosely arranged points to develop the decorative surfaces of so-called “Rococo Cubism”. His final take on the technique was the masterpiece Return from the Baptism, which amounted to a precise and entirely consummate quotation.

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