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Selfies à la Seurat: Face to Face at the IMA


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Face to Face curators Jane Block (left, Professor at the University of Illinois) and Ellen W. Lee (Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator at the IMA). - NATHANIEL EDMUNDS PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Nathaniel Edmunds Photography
  • Face to Face curators Jane Block (left, Professor at the University of Illinois) and Ellen W. Lee (Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator at the IMA).

The IMA's special exhibitions gallery housing Face to Face: The Neo-Impressionist Portrait, 1886-1904, may seem to facilitate international travel of a sort. That is, there is a clear line of delineation between the gallery spaces in which the paintings of French and Belgian artists are hung. So when you cross from one gallery space adorned with a blow-up image of the Eiffel Tower and into another adorned with an image of the Place Royale in Brussels, it's almost like crossing an international border.

And during the private tour before the exhibition reception on Thursday night, Ellen W. Lee, the co-organizer of the exhibition and the Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, explained to our large crowd of donors (and two journalists) why Belgian and French painters were given equal space in the exhibition.

"I think it makes sense that you would all associate Neo-Impressionism with Paris," she said. "Georges Seurat was a Parisian. That's where his followers created paintings for their first show, but one of the things that we wanted to make people aware of in this exhibition was that there was a second capital of Neo-Impressionism and that was in the city of Brussels. ... There was this very progressive artists' group in Brussels called Les XX (the Twenty), [which] had twenty member artists who were really out there looking for new ideas. They had shows every year and they also invited twenty artists who they thought were hot and interesting and provocative."

The first iteration of this Face to Face took place, it so happens, at the ING Cultural Center in Brussels, opening this February.

And one of the most prominent Belgian Neo-Impressionists who showed his work in Brussels — a member of Les XX — was Georges Lemmen. His "Two Sisters," featured in Face to Face, is a part of the IMA's permanent collection. It provides an opportunity for a demonstration — in the exhibition's wall text and interactive displays — of Neo-Impressionist techniques of applied color theory. It also serves as a reminder that Neo-Impressionist technique is not just about painting with dots.

Georges Lemmen, "The Two Sisters" or "The Serruys Sisters," 1894.
  • Georges Lemmen, "The Two Sisters" or "The Serruys Sisters," 1894.

"They wanted these brilliant effects," said Lee. "They would work with the opposites on the color wheel because those are known to make the most vibrant contrasts. Lemmen embodied it so well and his touch was so precise."

According to Lee, the Neo-Impressionists had some very practical considerations mixed in with their theorizing. They would let their pointillist dots dry on the canvas so their colors would dry and not mix, before applying more. This was in contrast to the Impressionist painters, who would apply thick brush work fast onto their canvases in the interest of spontaneity.

The Neo-Impressionist way of creating a portrait has nothing to do with the photography that was becoming an increasingly popular method of portraiture at the time. And yet, Neo-Impressionism founder Georges Seurat and his followers were concerned in finding a scientific — if not necessarily photoreal — basis for representing the physical world on canvas. And this faith in scientific progress is what animated the art of the Neo-Impressionists. It was no accident that the Eiffel Tower - a monument to scientific progress - was a subject of one of Georges Seurat's paintings.

And this same sense of discovery and progress seems to animate Lemmen's conté crayon on paper portrait of a dancer in motion — a dancer named Loïe Fuller — one of the drawings that Lee pointed out during her tour (lest we were to think that Neo-Impressionism was all about painting). Fuller was an American dancer, renowned across Europe for her unusual ways of incorporating her flowing silk costumes and multi-colored lighting into her dance routines. Lemmen portrays more of the dancer than the dance. It's one of the more stunning of the twenty portraits on paper that are also part of this exhibition. (It is portrayed side by side with actual film footage of Fuller dancing "the Serpentine.")

In its abstract qualities and its depiction of motion, it seemed to me that this 1893-94 portrait could easily slip onto the wall of a contemporary art gallery.

After the private tour it was off to the IMA's Toby Theatre, where Lee spelled out in a short lecture the reasons why Neo-Impressionist portraiture had never been the subject of a museum exhibition before: "Perhaps," she said, "Because Seurat's great idea was rooted in recreating the sensation of natural light and vibrant color, Neo-Impressionist technique has usually been examined through landscapes and scenes of urban life, basically outdoor scenes, and as a result portraits have received much less attention, until now."

Théo van Rysselberghe, "Maria Sèthe at the Harmonium," 1891. - © LUKAS-ART IN FLANDERS VZW / PHOTO: HUGO MAERTENS / THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY
  • © Lukas-Art in Flanders VZW / Photo: Hugo Maertens / The Bridgeman Art Library
  • Théo van Rysselberghe, "Maria Sèthe at the Harmonium," 1891.

Lee's talk in the Toby clocked in at around twenty minutes, after which there was a reception in the Pulliam Family Great Hall. On the way there I thought about the iPads that were available in the exhibition, under the blowup of the Eiffel Tower, for anyone who wanted to pointilliize themselves, in a faux Neo-Impressionist portrait — a selfie à la Seurat — to send to their Facebook page or wherever.

And I thought about Facebook. Social media, among other things, is a great distraction from the fears that many of us share. The faith in science that animated the Neo-Impressionists has been replaced in many quarters, I think, by fear. Fear of global warming, terrorism, societal collapse, or an apocalyptic combo of said scenarios.

How does one deal with this fear as an artist? I couldn't help thinking of Indy artist Susan Hodgin, an artist suffering from stage 4 cancer. In her landscapes and abstract work she confronts the sublime, a large component of which is fear. (Like Seurat, she has her own set of followers in this city who incorporate her unique way of manipulating light and space and color in their work.).

But I was not able to keep waxing philosophical for long among the crowd of some 300 patrons and guests as I rounded the corner and walked into the Pulliam Great Hall. The tables were piled high with salmon and bagels and cheeses and the de rigueur beer of the hip Indy crowd Sun King was of course available and I ate and drank my share as I hobnobbed a bit.

Henri Delavallée, "The Boot Polisher" or "The Groom," 1890. - COURTESY OF ROBERTO POLO GALLERY, BRUSSELS.
  • Courtesy of Roberto Polo Gallery, Brussels.
  • Henri Delavallée, "The Boot Polisher" or "The Groom," 1890.

And I ran into IMA Director and CEO Charles Venable. I asked him if he had any favorite paintings in this exhibition.

"Well I certainly like most people love the self portrait by Van Gogh, coming from the Art Institute of Chicago," he said. "It's a really beautiful self portrait by him. "There's also a much bigger painting, almost life size of a boy who's a shoe shine, a very lowly status, called "The Boot Polisher." An artist named Henri Delavallée painted it. He's waiting for someone with shoes that need shining to walk by..... And it's a really breathtaking portrait. There are certainly names, Signac, Van Gogh - names that that are much more famous - but actually some of the best discoveries in this show for the people they may not have heard of but my God what extraordinary work. That's the fun thing, introducing people to artists that they may not know yet."

I asked Venable if the IMA having the preeminent Neo-Impressionist collection in North America was a key factor in enabling them to organize this exhibition. (The IMA is the sole North American venue for this show.)

"An institution that had no Neo-Impressionist paintings, for example, would be very hard pressed to do this show, because it means that you had never lent a major picture in this style to another museum," he said. "So the fact that we've had a major collection for twenty or thirty years means that we've lent to the D'Orsay in Paris, we've lent to all the major museums in the Netherlands."

"So you have to give some to get some," I said, as I rattled off in my head the museums that loaned to this particular exhibition: The Art Institute of Chicago, the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée D'Orsay, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum Plantan-Moretus, Antwerp... . The list goes on...

"It's true," said Venable. "So when a museum says no, and I know that we've lent ten paintings to them in the past ten years, it's easy for me to call them up and say, hey, by the way, here's a list of everything we've lent to you and would you consider lending that to Indianapolis for a mere three months? Usually you don't have to do that. Most people are really thrilled that we're doing this extraordinary show."


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