Post-impressionism (from French postimpressionisme, latin post – “after”) — artistic movement, which included painting and graphics; it’s a collective definition of main European cultural trends from the end of the 1880s to the beginning of the 20th cent. Originated in France, it quickly spread to the rest of the countries on the Continent and reached the USA.
Term “post-impressionism” was introduced by art critic Roger Fry, who organized an exhibition of then-contemporary French art “Manet and post-impressionism” in Grafton Gallery in 1910.
The time-lapse of post-impressionism development is comparatively short – it’s about 7-10 years that followed the last exhibition of impressionists in 1886. But this period was one of the most eventful in the artistic life of France and Europe.
After having analyzed some art movements of the end of the 19th cent., one might have an impression that it was a purely decadent epoch, when numerous idealistic movements (like Symbolism and Art Nouveau) gained popularity after crisis of Impressionism. Some specialists define it as a period of prevailing irrealism. Doubtlessly, it’s hard to deny that decline of Impressionism in 1880s was a sign of the approaching upheaval in bourgeois culture and realistic tradition of the 19th cent. And, for sure, it entailed the burst of some antirealistic, decadent aesthetical tendencies. But it would be more correct to talk about decay of academism, meanwhile achievements of some proceeding styles (like Romanticism and already mentioned Impressionism) were absorbed and interpreted on another, qualitatively new level.
The artists, who belonged to Post-impressionism – Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne and others – provoked numerous discussions among art historians. They are mainly considered as precursors of avant-garde of 1910-s – 1920th. So, specialists were interested in mostly on those elements of their legacy that were picked up by succeeding generations of masters. Moreover, this elements are regarded as signs of “fading” realism. But as we penetrate deeper in the art of the 20th cent., the duality of those masters becomes evident. It’s true their attainments formed a ground for the innovations of a new art, yet, they were still connected to impressionism, which, in its own turn, had inherited some characteristics from romanticism and realism. Post-impressionists followed major principle, elaborated by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro – orientation on visually perceived reality. The image of objective material world, no matter how transformed it was, remained a key issue for the painters and was permanently presented in their canvases.
It’s curious that even some of symbolists (like Odilon Redon), who inclined to mysticism and visionary pictures, were talking about necessity of observation of life. So, post-impressionists just reactualized this problem. Their main difference from impressionists is their dissociation. Impressionists, though noticeable for the variety of bright artistic personalities and manners, were still connected by a general framebase, method. The latter was their starting point – that’s why impressionism occurs the last integral artistic movement (at least in France), marked by presence of more or less definite stylistic features. Next generation of artists lacked this unity. Their works bear the imprint of artistic “anarchy”, high individualism and subjectivity, so typical for the cultural life of fin de siècle. Keeping connections with impressionism, they unanimously desired to break through narrowness of the movement, to overcome limitations of concentration on optical aspects, and all were persistently searching for new methods and techniques in their own way. It’s hard to identify immediately similarities between the utmost emotionality and obsession with coloring of Van Gogh, Gaugin’s searches for new artistic regularities and provocative elegance of works by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Even the definition of their movement, “Post-impressionism” is quite vague, as it declared their relation to previous stages in history of French art without outlining the direction of their innovations.
A crucial difference between Post-impressionists and their forerunners was their rejecting of accent on mere visual effects, superficial side of the surrounding. For instance, Paul Gauguin often compared art with mirror, adding that his pieces reflected not the appearance of figures and objects but his spiritual state. And Paul Cezanne called his art “thinking with a brush in hands”. The main purpose of creativity now changed from imitating nature to self-expression.
ostimpressionists wanted to bring back things overshadowed by impressionists – idea, content. One of their purposes laid in re-establishing artistic traditions of the past, classical in particular. Roughly speaking, each of them tried to refine impressionism and complete it to his hand.
Cezanne saw his target in building an elaborate and holistic compositions. In his experiments he referred to the classicistic heritage of Poussin and Ingres that inspired him to depict not only scenes of contemporary life but classical characters and subjects. Using color he geometrized forms of things and figures, revealing their structure. Cezanne gave back to the objects weightness and density. He claimed to paint not from nature but “in parallel to nature”.
Van Gogh attempted to show his attitude to the represented scene using color consonance. That’s why his landscapes and interiors are translating his inner state. He believed there were some hues that “love” and “hate” each other, that’s why their dramatic contrast or harmony were able to retranslate emotions of an artist. The influence of coloring could be amplified with character of a brush stroke – sometimes rough, abrupt, sharp, sometimes – roundish, soft, rhythmically repeating.
Gauguin distanced even further from impressionism. He wanted to touch upon eternal, timeless questions. He was attracted by primordial and oriental art and in his diaries once noticed that he depicted not real life, but dreams about it. His painting was gradually moving towards such conditionality no one had reached yet. If coloring of Van Gogh’s canvases was emotional in Gauguin’s it was decorative.
Post-impressionism and primitivism
Industrial revolution of the 19th cent., improvement of transportation with steam-baesd technologies also noticeably affected cultural world, as now distanced European colonies now became more accessible for art lovers. If connoisseurs didn’t acquaint with indigenous crafts directly they had plenty possibilities to see objects, brought overseas, in salons and galleries of European capitals. Some masters, like Henri Rousseau, were enchanted with exoticism of these poorly explored lands.
Artists used to austerity and illusionism of academism were struck with primitive expression: decorativeness, absence of perspective, simple modeling of forms, local coloring, powerful energetic feeling and exquisite ornaments. All this traits of folk art of Africa, Oceania, America had analogies in the European heritage of ancient and medieval times.
“I shut my eyes in order to see”.
“In painting one must search rather for suggestion than for description, as is done in music”.
“A bit of advice, don’t copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it and concentrate on what you will create as a result”.
Vincent Van Gogh
“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it”.
“I assure you that there’s a lot involved in compositions with figures. … It’s like weaving… you must control and keep an eye on several things at once”.
“Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit”
“For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject; it is realizing one’s sensations”.
“The painter must enclose himself within his work; he must respond not with words, but with paintings”.
“[I will] astonish Paris with an apple.”
Critic Jean Ajalbert about Post-impressionism
“They have managed to produce intense coloring with the help of observation as precise as it is simple… They’ve avoided any muddiness in their painting by using tiny brushstrokes, little dotted points, or the juxtaposition of colors: the mixture occurs in the eye, not on the palette. They paint by attenuating, by modifying the local color of an object through reflections of the strongest adjacent color. They have, so to speak, restored the virginity of the eye, forgetting conventional colors in order to find, on their own, the right note. And they have succeeded”.
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