Beyond Impressionism – Paris, Fin de Siècle

Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is proud to present Beyond Impressionism – Paris, Fin de Siècle: Signac, Redon, Toulouse-Lautrec and Their Contemporaries, an exhibition organized by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, on view October 21, 2017 through January 21, 2018. Featuring more than 120 paintings, drawings, prints, and works on paper, the exhibition explores the Parisian art scene of the late 19th century. CMA, in partnership with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, is the only museum in the United States to host the exhibition. Beyond Impressionism focuses on some of the most important French avant-garde artists and also includes one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings.

“Columbus Museum of Art is delighted to be the only U.S. venue for this extraordinary exhibition,” said CMA Executive Director Nannette V. Maciejunes. “Our partnership with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao allows us a rare opportunity to bring to Columbus a visually stunning and historically fascinating show. The underlying themes of political and social turmoil will no doubt resonate with today’s contemporary audiences.”

Fin-de-Siècle (turn-of-the-century) Paris was a city experiencing profound political upheaval and cultural transformation. Sustained economic crisis and social issues spurred the rise of radical left-wing groups and an attendant backlash of conservatism plagued France throughout the late 1890s. In 1894, President Sadi Carnot was assassinated by an anarchist and the unlawful conviction for treason of Alfred Dreyfus, an officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent, divided the nation. Such events exposed France’s social and political polarization: bourgeois and bohemian, conservative and radical, Catholic and anticlerical, anti-republication and anarchist. A spectrum of artistic movements mirrored the unsettled era. By the late 1880s, a generation of artists had emerged that included Neo-Impressionists, Symbolists, and Nabis. Their subject matter remained similar to that of their Impressionist forebears: landscapes, the modern city, and leisure-time activities. However, their treatment of these familiar subjects shifted to introspective, fantastical visions and stark portrayals of society.

 Beyond Impressionism explores these avant-garde movements through some of the most prominent artists of that time: Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Maximillian Luce, Odilon Redon, Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Félix Vallotton. The Impressionists’ ambition to spontaneously capture fleeting moments of contemporary life gave way to a new generation who produced carefully crafted works that were anti-naturalistic in form and execution and sought to elicit emotions, sensations, or psychic responses in the viewer. Despite their sometimes contradictory stances, these artists shared the common goal of creating art with a universal resonance. Surveyed as a whole, the art of this tumultuous decade maps a complex terrain of divergent aesthetic and philosophical theories, while charting the destabilizing events at the brink of a new century.

 Beyond Impressionism is organized into three themes or sections: Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, and Nabis and the Print Culture of the 1890s.

 Neo-Impressionists: Georges Seurat, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Camille Pissarro, Théo van Rysselberghe, and Paul Signac
The Neo-Impressionists débuted at the Eighth (and last) Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1886, led by Georges Seurat. That same year, Félix Fénéon, an art critic and champion of these artists, coined the term “Neo-Impressionists” in a review. When Seurat died at an early age, Paul Signac took his place as the leader and theorist of the movement. Sometimes called Pointillists, the principal Neo-Impressionists – Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Seurat, and Signac – were joined by former Impressionist Camille Pissarro as well as like-minded artists, from nearly countries such as Belgian painter Théo van Rysselberghe. These vanguard painters looked to scientific theories of color and perception to create visual effects in their canvases. The theories of French chemist Michel-Eugéne Chevreul set out in the Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors (1839) and American physicist Ogden Rood in Modern Chromatics (1879) were particularly influential.

This modern, revolutionary painting technique was characterized by the juxtaposition of tiny, individual strokes and dots of pigment that created intense hues. By using complementary colors and flowing forms, the Neo-Impressionists rendered compositions noted for their unity and intense luminosity. The representation of light as it impacted color when refracted by water, filtered through atmospheric compositions, or rippled across a field was a dominant concern in their works. Many of the Neo-Impressionists shared left-wing political views, evident, for example, in Pissarro’s and Luce’s depictions of the working class. But even when not guided by political objectives, the Neo-Impressionists’ shimmering interpretations of city, suburb, seaside, or countryside reflected a formal quest for harmony.

Symbolists: Maurice Denis and Odilon Redon
Symbolism began as a literary movement and its principles were codified in 1886 when poet Jean Moréas published the “Symbolist Manifesto” in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Symbolism quickly infiltrated the visual arts. The term is applied to a variety of artists who shared anti-naturalistic goals and produced work exhibiting peculiar forms and allusive subject matter. One of the most important Symbolists was Odilon Redon, with his eerie images of floating, disembodied heads, creeping spiders, and scenes unmoored from reality.

Most of the Symbolist artists were averse to materialism and had lost faith in science, which had failed to alleviate the ills of modern society. They chose instead to probe spiritualism and altered states of mind, believing in the power of evocative, dreamlike images. Decorative elements, nourished by Art Nouveau’s organic curves and arabesque forms, permeated their work and canvases.

Symbolist art embraced mythic narratives, religious themes, and the macabre world of nightmares, abandoning the factual for the fantastic, the exterior world for the drama of psychological landscapes, the material for the spiritual, and the concrete for the ethereal. Though deeply rooted in narrative, Symbolism sought to elicit abstracted sensations and, through subjective imagery, to convey universal experience.  

 Nabis and Print Culture: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard
Printmaking experienced a renaissance in fin-de-siècle France, both in lithography and woodcut. This revival was launched primarily by the Nabis, along with artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Nabis (from the Hebrew word meaning “prophets”) were a loosely connected brotherhood whose art was influenced by both the flat planes of color and pattern of Paul Gauguin’s work and by the abrupt cropping and two-dimensional compositions of Japanese woodblock prints. Renouncing easel painting, the Nabis’ work included prints, posters, and illustrations for journals such as La Revue blanche, co-owned by their patron Thadée Natanson.

As a “low” art form exempt from academic rules that governed painting, printmaking offered an artistic freedom that many found attractive. During the 1890s artists experimented with the stark contrasts of woodcuts, as Félix Vallotton did with his inventive use of black-and-white in scathing commentaries on Parisian society. Other Nabis, like Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, were enthralled with color lithography and tested the limits of the medium. They produced posters and print portfolios commissioned by dealers, most importantly gallerist Ambroise Vollard.

Toulouse-Lautrec turned his energies to the art of the poster, creating bold and incisive views of city life. These large-scale, eye-catching, brilliant creations were short-lived advertisements pasted along the streets and sidewalks of Paris. Passers-by were seduced by exciting, caricature-like portrayals of bohemian venues: the café-concerts of Montmartre or the famed performers who headlined there, including Jane Avril and La Goulue (the glutton). The lively, unconventional lives celebrated in these prints and posters came to define fin-de-siècle Paris. 

An illustrated catalogue, with essays by Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, Gloria Groom, Vivien Greene, Ruth E. Iskin, Bridget Alsdorf, and Ann Dumas accompanies the exhibition. Copies of the catalogue are available in the Museum Store.

This exhibition is organized by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in partnership with the Columbus Museum of Art.

Columbus Museum of Art creates great experiences with great art for everyone. The Greater Columbus Arts Council, Nationwide Foundation, Ohio Arts Council, and the William C. and Naoma W. Denison, Frederic W. and Elizabeth E. Heimberger, Paul-Henri Bourguignon and Erika Bourguignon Fund for Visual Art, and Bette Wallach funds of The Columbus Foundation provide ongoing support. CMA, Schokko Art Café, and the Museum Store are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Thursday from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. Museum admission is $14 for adults; $8 for seniors and students 6 and older; and free for members, children 5 and younger. Special exhibition fees for Beyond Impressionism are as follows: $20 adults, $14 seniors (60+) and students (18+), $11 students (6-17), free for CMA members and children 5 and under. CMA general admission is free on Sundays and pay-what-you-want on Thursday evenings from 5:00-9:00 pm; entrance to Beyond Impressionism on those days is $6. General admission is free for all on Sundays; PNC Free Sundays presented by PNC Arts Alive is made possible through a grant from the PNC Foundation. CMA charges a flat rate of $5 for parking in the Museum’s East Gay lot. CMA members park for free. For additional information, call 614.221.6801.


Image: Paul SignacSaint-Tropez, Fontaine des Lices, 1895, Oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 inches, Private collection