The Near-Great Signac Gets Very Big Exhibit

It has been said of the French artist and writer Paul Signac

that he was an “almost-great painter.” Something along the lines of this highly

equivocal judgment, which recognizes extraordinary talent while denying it the

highest accolade, has long been the established view of Signac’s place in the

canon of modern painting. It was therefore inevitable that the question of

Signac’s achievement in relation to the art of his time-one of the truly great

epochs in Western painting-would loom very large over the retrospective

exhibition of the artist’s work that has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of

Art.

The question is all the more insistent, of course, because

of the outsize scale of the current retrospective-a scale customarily reserved

for the greatest achievements. Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist

numbers some 120 works, with about 70 oil paintings accompanied by a generous

selection of watercolors, drawings and prints, documenting a very productive

career that lasted half a century. There is thus a lot to look at in this

exhibition, and a lot to ponder.

Yet I very much doubt that the lavish scale will succeed in

altering the established view of Signac’s achievement. In my judgment, anyway,

only once in his very long career did Signac give us an undoubted masterpiece,

and that was in his sensational Portrait of Félix Fénéon Opus 217 (1890-91), a

painting that remains unique in its overabundance of chromatic invention,

pictorial energy and sheer intellectual audacity. Except for this amazing

picture, it is the many-sided character of the artist’s career and the

intellectual gifts he brought to it, rather than any consistently high quality

in the art, that sustains our interest in Signac’s capacious oeuvre.

Still, it is in one important respect that this exhibition

can be said to be something of a success: that is, to

the extent that it once again concentrates our attention on the pivotal role

played by the Neo-Impressionist aesthetic in the evolution of modernist

painting. Yet even in this respect, Signac is bound to remain a secondary

figure. For as a wall text hastens to remind us in the first room of the

current exhibition at the Met, “It has been Signac’s fate to be remembered as the

second man of Neo-Impressionism. Whereas the better known Seurat is celebrated

as an innovator and a key figure in the history of art, Signac is usually seen

as an ever-faithful disciple and advocate.”

The current retrospective is clearly intended to effect a

revision of this estimate in Signac’s favor. And so straightaway in the first

room of the exhibition, before we’ve had a single glimpse of a Signac painting,

we are treated to three mural-scale close-up views of Signac’s brushwork in

paintings that departed from the Neo-Impressionist orthodoxy of Seurat’s

Pointillism in favor of more mosaic-like patches of color-a stylistic

innovation which Signac preferred to call “Divisionism.” The presumable purpose

of this pedagogic installation device is to persuade the public that Signac was

not, after all, a slavish imitator of Seurat. It is, by the way, one of the

curiosities of these blown-up images of Signac’s brushwork that they bear a

certain resemblance to the later abstract paintings of Bradley Walker Tomlin.

Be that as it may, however, the actual paintings in which Signac allegedly

liberated his work from Seurat’s Pointillism remain as pictorially inert as

those in which he remained abjectly loyal to Seurat’s method.

It is only in Signac’s watercolors that he was able to

escape Seurat’s method in favor of a more spontaneous response to

nature. Yet the watercolors are not

otherwise of compelling interest. They have a certain period charm, to be sure,

but they lack distinction.

Oddly enough, it is in certain paintings of bourgeois

domestic subjects-especially The Dining Room, Opus 152 (1886-87) and Sunday

(1888-90)-that Signac’s penchant for pictorial inertia proved to be a source of

expressive power. In these bitterly satirical depictions of bourgeois propriety

and torpor, Signac’s painstaking adoption of the Pointillist method acquired a

ferocity of feeling that is not to be found elsewhere in his oeuvre. In

pictures of this persuasion, we are reminded of the anarchist, libertarian

sympathies that Signac shared not only with Félix Fénéon-who, in addition to

serving as the principal critic of the Neo-Impressionist movement, was also a

radical political activist-but with certain other members of the

Neo-Impressionist circle.

Yet there is no trace of a comparable intensity of feeling

in the many, many landscape and seascape paintings which dominate the current

retrospective. About these pictures, however, there is a certain paradox to be

observed. Signac had produced in his treatise, From Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism

(1899), one of the most intelligent analyses of pictorial color in the entire

literature of the subject. But his own use of color in his landscape and

seascape painting is remarkably facile, formulaic and even, at times,

unnervingly garish and vulgar. It is indeed his failure as a colorist in these

paintings that makes large stretches of this retrospective a very deadening

experience.

It was not only in relation to Seurat, moreover, that Signac

remained a secondary figure. His early imitations of Monet are never more than

secondary examples of the Impressionist style. And in relation to what other

painters made of the Neo-Impressionist aesthetic-think of Pissarro and early

Matisse, as well as the adoption of Neo-Impressionist elements in the work of

the Cubists and the Futurists-Signac is likewise of secondary interest. Which is also to say that his talents are simply not weighty enough

to sustain an exhibition on the scale of the current retrospective.

Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist was organized by

the Metropolitan Museum

in collaboration with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Musée d’Orsay in Paris

and the Van Gogh Museum

in Amsterdam, and it remains on

view at the Met through Dec. 30.