Pointillism, point by point (or rather, the pixels before the invention of digital monitors…).
Let us start from a presupposition. It is better not to name the pointillist, a pointillist, as it could end up offending him. Georges Seurat, who was the founder for the Neo-Impressionist movement as well as the inventor of the Pointillists’ techniques, cannot stand this term. He – who had studied the theory of color and applied, with absolute rigor, the pigments on the canvas of his masterpiece “La Grande Jatte”, which took him more than two years to realize – felt belittled to be remembered as “the one who paints with dots”. That is the reason why he had coined the term “Cromoluminarism”.
Surely, it sounds beautiful but for us and for the comfort of you, the reader, we have decided to continue naming the movement Pointillism. With all due respect to Seurat.
1- THE POINTILLISM IS NOT IMPRESSIONISM
Let’s get this straight before a possible misunderstanding. The Pointillism’s technique is being used by the end of nineteenth century from a group of artists that are only, at later date, being defined by the scholar, Félix Fénéon, as Neo- Impressionists. Therefore, it does not concern the Impressionist painters that had animated the whole second half of that century.
The prefix “neo” in Neo-Impressionism indicates that we are faced with something radically new and different, although within the line of continuity with the previous experience. Neo-Impressionism is, in this sense, an artistic experience with precise features, which fits in many currents that pave us the way towards the avant-garde of the twentieth century called Post-Impressionist (among others, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne are included).
But how can Pointillism Neo-Impressionist and Impressionism be differentiated? And in what do they resemble? Let’s start with the second question. Pointillism and Impressionism arise both from the same need: to grasp the reality of the nature and landscape in its luminous essence and by trying to capture it on the canvas through the use of color rather than drawing.
In spite of the common starting point, their path as well as their final outcomes are of diametrically opposition. The Impressionist painter is positioned in front of the landscape with a romantic spirit. Through his eyes, the artist’s emotion passes through his heart and then reaches his hand where rapid, instinctive, and sometimes, impetuous brushstrokes are maneuvered. While the Pointillist does exactly the opposite. His ways of painting are rational, detached, methodical, time-consuming and consistence. There is no space for instinct.
In the Positivist’s climate of the end of the century, which is dominated by the idea of progress, the faith in science and technology, the Pointillists theorized an art that based on rigid and precise scientific laws.
2- TO OBTAIN LIGHT EFFECTS MEANS NO MIXING ON THE PALETTE
The search for a representation of light as truthful as possible, is being carried out by Pointillists following some theories that are taking hold in those years. There were two discoveries in optics’ field that have most influenced Pointillists and their ways of understanding painting.
The first one is due to French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, who was in charge, among other things, the restoration of antique tapestries. It is precisely in doing this work that Chevreul noted an interesting thing: to restore properly a missing piece of a tapestry, in fact, it is necessary to take into account the influence of the colors presented around the gap. He found out that when two colors juxtaposed, slightly overlapping or very close, they would have had the effect of another different color if perceived by the human eye from a certain distance.
It is the principle of “simultaneous contrast”, that the same Chevreul fully theorized in 1839 with his famous chromatic circle that would latter on take his name. Chevreul noted that if each color lying on a white sheet, on its sides, an aura of its complementary color can be perceived. Thus, by combining two complementary colors, the aura of one reinforces the other, which mutually increase the brightness.
Now that you know the theory behind, try to take any Pointillist paintings, carefully observed it closely, and count how many times a color of each presented point is matched to its complementary. You will certainly be surprised to never have noticed this particularity before.
Another fundamental finding is thanks to the physicist Nicholas Ogden Rood. The synthesis of his research can be summarized in this way: the juxtaposing of primary color creates a more intense, bright and pleasant presentation of it than the effects obtained by mixing directly the pigments.
In facts, Rood claimed that the light and the colored material (to be clear, the colors in the tube) behave in completely different ways. The mixing of the colored material, leads to an increasing dark brown, almost black of the pigments while the mixing of the beams of colored light generates the white light.
This is the real revolution of Pointillism as it says goodbye to the mixing colors’ palette. The colors are, only purely placed, on the canvas, without being mixed together but only juxtaposed to one another. It is no longer up to the artist to mix the colors, but the eyes of the viewers, when stand from a certain distance, to gets what is called “optical mixture”.
In other words, the pointillists do not create a simple painting, but they create a real projection of light beams, which is, subsequently, interpreted by the human eye. Exactly as it happens in nature.
3- DOES SCIENCE TRANSMIT THE EMOTION?
However, all this science, this rationality, this rigidly and methodical… how can they reconcile with art and with its aim to hit the human soul through emotions?
Paradoxically, might be more than what we have imagined, they do.
The Pointillists themselves were well aware of how science was just a base to build upon. The response, to those who accused them of subordinating art to science, is that for them science is just a tool to educate the eyes and the perception. However, science could never replace the aesthetics judgement and artistic talent. As being summarized by one of the greatest critics of the movement, Félix Fénéon «Mr. X may be able to interpret the optics law from here to eternity, but he can never create “La Grande Jatte”».
Pointillism will also have a fundamental importance in the artistic evolution later on. As the continuous thoughts based upon the scientific terms brings the pointillists to understand how different combinations of colors, forms and lines can differently affect the mind of each viewers by generating diverse emotions. At this point. If I only need to see colors and forms to express and to arouse emotionally, why do I need a subject of representation? The Pointillists (unconsciously) have paved the way for the forefront of the next century like Expressionism, Cubism where art is completely subjective and abstract!
The scientific breakthrough of Pointillism is, at the end, paradoxically revealed as the starting point of an art completely emotional.
4- FROM SEURAT TO YVONNE CANU AND UP TO NOWADAYS
So far, we have talked about Pointillism, but who are these Pointillists or Neo-Impressionists artists?
Earlier we quoted Georges Seurat, who was the founder of the movement. His monumental Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, undisputed masterpiece of neo-impressionist Pointillism, was, for the first time, exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1886. Exactly, simultaneously at this exhibition that also marks the end of Impressionism and the beginning of Neo-Impressionism.
Along with Seurat, Paul Signac and Camille Pissaro, they form the triad of the founders of French Pointillism. Soon many artists would join the new artistic movement: Lucien Pissaro (son of Camille), Louis Hayet, Albert Dupois-Pillet, Charles Angrand, Maximilien Luce, Léo Gausson, plus many other Belgian artists who are part of the avant-garde group “Les Vingts” including Hery van de Velde and Théo van Rysselberghe.
In parallel, outside the French borders, the Italian’s Divisionism also develops from the same theoretical basis. Although, it also proposes the use of optical rules and decomposition theories of colors, parallel and independent from the French movement, it is less rigorous and systematics. While the French’s preference for dots, the Italians favor the more elongated and stacked type of brushstrokes.
Among the main Divisionism’s artists, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Giovanni Segantini, Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, Gaetano Previati, Angelo Morbelli, Carlo Fornara, Emilio Longoni as well as the “future Futurists” Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla.
The Neo-Impressionism is a phenomenon that is mainly developed in the last decade of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, there are artists who recovered theories and techniques even after the wars, conveying them to the present time. As in the case of Yvonne Canu ( 1921-2007), one of the rare feminine figures of this style, the protagonist of the exhibition organized by Artrust from March, 21th until May, 21th 2016.
Today, Pointillism is an artistic technique that belongs to the past. However, the same reflections on light and its perception still inspire many artists like in the case of the Italian Cristiano Pintaldi, who paints his subjects by breaking them down into innumerable “pixels”, using only the primary colors of light (red, green and blue) in order to modulate the light and the dimness. Or, in the case of Markus Raetz (exhibited until May, 1st 2016 at LAC Lugano), who, in some of his works, explores in depth the fascinating world of visual perception.