Signac and the Independents

The exhibition Signac and the Indépendants (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) gives a cross-section of French art in the 1880-1940 period. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. This exhibition of the collection of Gilles Genty was organised around the subject of the Indépendants exhibition. The collection of Gilles Genty is a selection of avant-garde French and Belgian art from the 1880s to World War II. The collection follows the central line of avant-garde art that is preferred by art historians: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism (Divisionism/Pointillism), Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935) founded the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 as means of avant-garde artists exhibiting outside of the academy. From 1908 to 1934 Signac was president of the group. It drew its inspiration from the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists (commenced 1874) and shared a number of artists with those displays. The annual exhibitions became the focal point for controversy regarding new art. Over the years it featured art by the Symbolists, Nabis, Fauves, Expressionists, Salon Cubists, Orphists, Dadaists and the École de Paris. Matisse made his name for his Fauvist paintings exhibited with the group.

Signac was a Divisionist or Pointillist, a close associate of Seurat and the leading proponent of the style following Seurat’s early death in 1891. Signac was wedded to Pointillism from 1884 until the end of his life. There are plausible suggestions that Signac’s political anarchism influenced his commitment to Pointillism, with its conception of individual marks playing their parts in a harmonious whole. (Pointillists sometimes believed in the inclusion of all parts of a spectrum in a painting.) Pissarro’s anarchism contributed in his adoption of “scientific” Pointillism as a companion to the “scientific” social solution of anarchism as a cure for social ills. Pissarro was doyen of artist-anarchists and the Neo-Impressionists.

As the Salon accepted and absorbed the avant-garde following a lag, so artists transferred their loyalty from the Indépendants to the more lucrative and highly attended. Both the Indépendants and the Impressionists resented artists defecting. (Manet was not eligible for the Impressionist exhibitions because he continued to exhibit at the Salon.) Signac commented, “For twenty years now, a few comrades and I have been running the Salon des Indépendants, where every artist has been free to exhibit what he liked and how he liked. Now, few of them stay with us! They prefer to be rejected or to reject others from exhibitions based on the detestable principle of Authority. (Société des Artistes Français, Société Nationale, Salon d’Automne). Too bad for the spineless!”

Among the art included are pictures by Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Berthe Morisot, with a masterpiece by the former. The Sparrow (c. 1865-70) is a fine pastel, delicately made and sympathetically observed. It shows a bust in profile of the artist’s sister as a Roman woman holding a sparrow. It dates from her apprenticeship years, when she studied under Charles Chaplin, an academic painter.

Maximilien Luce was a social realist and anarchist who portrayed the industrial workers of Wallonia and scenes of steelworks and collieries on the Sambre river at Charleroi. (Constant Meunier – not part of this collection – took similar topics for his sculpture and paintings.) Luce became president of the Indépendants on Signac’s retirement. Luce’s oval-format views of Paris are pretty and would have considerable appeal if they were better known.

The Belgians who exhibited at the Indépendants included Spilliaert, Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, Khnopff and others. (Ensor is absent here.) Odilon Redon is represented by a large number of pastels and prints, typical of his output. It is useful to have pieces by Maurice Denis, who was an intermittently accomplished painter. There are artists who are not often covered in publications, such as Pointillist Achille Laugé, whose paintings are attractive – the best of the three shown here is a landscape. Louis Hayet is a lightweight painter of theatre interiors. Paul-Élie Ransom is a minor Nabi and involved in the religious syncretism; he is harsh colourist and unoriginal. Louis Valtat’s Woman with Fox Stole (1897-8) is a fine picture, crackling with energy. The proto-Fauvist brushwork and Cloissoniste outlines create a powerful image with the motif balanced by a swirling background. A good marine by him suggests there is more pictures worth attention, outweighing a few weaker Valtat pictures here. A curiosity is a group of early drawings by Claude-Émile Schuffenecker, an artist best known as a forger of Van Gogh than as an artist under his own recognisance. They are illustrations (from c. 1881 to 1885) of everyday scenes of Parisian life, competent, unambitious and somewhat banal.  Gauguin, Maillol, Derain and Braque are represented by minor works. Considering the rarity and cost of Seurat’s paintings, the drawings fill in. However, Seurat’s remarkable drawings are better than most artists’ best paintings.

There is a broad section on posters with classic poster artists. It is striking how these artists fall into different groups and movements yet could translate their art into commercial designs: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis (Post-Impressionism), Bonnard, Vallotton (Nabi), Bottini (Cosmopolitan Realism), Grasset, Mucha, Steinlen (Art Nouveau). Jules Chéret defies classification. Although classified as Art Nouveau, Chéret syncretic style drew from many sources. His preference for facets and angles over curves makes his style not entirely compatible with Art Nouveau. It seems his simplified shapes may have influenced Seurat’s later depiction of figures.    

The Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists who were deeply influenced by Japanese art, Gauguin and were committed to making art from street life and domesticity, especially in print format. All the leading members are included in this exhibition: Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Riviere and Vallotton. The collection of art by Félix Vallotton is large and representative. The woodcuts (commenced 1891) are justly celebrated. The inclusion of a preparatory drawing for the 1897 print The Symphony is a pleasing addition to the prints themselves. Vallotton’s 1899 marriage gave him financial security and allowed him to pursue his ambitions. In 1901 he ceased making woodcuts and devoted himself to making oil paintings, principally nudes, landscapes and still-lifes. War (1915-6) was an exceptional return to the medium of woodcut. It was a suite of prints made to support the military effort of France. They are unsuccessful. Vallotton’s prints were not suitable for grave subjects or action and all fall flat.

The Bonnard works are mainly early Nabi graphics, including posters. There are some small marines with the skies in distinct horizontal strips. The dabbing of varying colours comes from Impressionism but Bonnard’s technique rejects the tenets of Impressionism. The École de Paris works by Matisse, Marcoussis, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet and others are generally bagatelles. Marie Laurencin is never anything more than vapid; Othon Friesz is irredeemably third rate. Raoul Dufy is decorative and nothing more.  

There is a set of Picasso’s Saltimbanques prints. Produced from 1904 to 1905 and editioned in 1913, during the artist’s Blue and Rose periods. These 14 prints are inconsistent; the finish and detail of the prints varies dramatically and it is clear Picasso did not conceive of the group as having any connecting thread other than the subjects that attracted him at the time: portraits, acrobats, the poor, primitive people.  

This catalogue is full of information on the Salon des Indépendants and the avant-garde in Paris at a critical time. There are plenty of surprises. The biographies and bibliography are useful for specialist researchers, particularly anyone studying Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Gilles Genty (ed.), Signac and the Indépendants, Hazan/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (distr. Yale), 2020, hardback, 384pp, 550 illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 300 25 1982 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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