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Paul Signac: Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Colours, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890); Museum of Modern seni, New York

We see a man’s portrait against a decorative background. An eccentric-looking gentleman in left profile, holding top hat and cane, keeps a sharp eye on a white flower apparently presented to an off-canvas recipient. The psychedelic-looking backdrop is a kaleidoscopic pinwheel of coloured patterns, swirling to the right.
However, there is more than meets the eye in Paul Signac’s painting, playfully entitled Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Colours, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890.
By 1886, the heyday of French Impressionism was over. Modern painters like Seurat and Signac searched for discipline and abandoned the intuitive, spontaneous impressionist brushstrokes for the scientific approach of Divisionism. Making colour an accessory to form, they experimented with new techniques based on optical laws. Their canvasses are filled with painstakingly juxtaposed dots of pure colour, believed to produce more luminosity when reunited in the viewer’s eye than premixed on the palette. The portrayed publicist, anarchist and seni critic Félix Fénéon was a rare but fervent supporter of the Divisionists’ unusual theory. He introduced the term Neo-Impressionism for their organized, ‘pointillist’ treatment of colour and light.
Scientist Charles Henry was another Neo-Impressionist champion. His publications (illustrated by a colour wheel done by Signac) on optical theories included the psychology of visual perception. Henry proposed a mathematically calculable correspondence between outer stimuli and psychic reaction. seni, he said, is a medium affecting the relationship between sense and psyche; audibly by music, visually by colours and lines. And music and painting share the principle of continual ‘autogenesis’: reproductive, creative energy.
The background (and title) of Opus 217 translate Signac’s understanding of Henry’s ideas into a visual music of pure, non-representational dynamics. Expanding kinetic energies, divided into eight separate psenis of colour and design, flow inexhaustibly from a centre point. At the same time, the static representation of the Neo-impressionists’ literary champion Fénéon holds a symbolist key to this reconciliation of figurative and almost abstract painting. The white flower in his writing-hand is a cyclamen, a reference to the rhythmic cycle of decorative energy behind him.
(text: Jos Hanou)

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