Art Movements in Art History - Postimpressionism
Art Movements > Postimpressionism > Introduction to Postimpressionism
Introduction to Postimpressionism*
Postimpressionism is not easy to define. There is no general agreement on exactly what
chronology is implied by the term or which artists are to be deemed Postimpressionists.
When a large exhibition entitled Post impressionism: Cross Currents in European Painting
was presented at the Royal Academy in London in 1979-I980, and then travelled to
Washington, controversy on the imprecision of the term was revived.
In order to simplify a complex issue, we will use Postimpressionism to mean the period
of roughly 1886 to 1906 in France. The dates are relatively arbitrary; the last impressionist
Exhibition was held in 1886,. and Cezanne, died in 1906. Furthermore, we will concern
ourselves predominantly with artists of some considerable significance.
The term "Post- Impressionism" was invented by Roger Fry in 1910 when he was
obliged to think of a suitahle name for a group of French artists whose work he was to
exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, London. According to Desmond MacCarthy, who assisted
Fry with the organisation of the exhibition, the derivation of the name was spontaneous.
Recalling the events of 1910, 35 years later, MacCarthy wrote:
"What was the exhibition to be called? ... . Roger and I and a young journalist who was
to help us with publicity met, to consider this; and it was at that meeting that a word
which is now safely embedded in the English language - "post-impressionism" - was
invented. Roger first suggested various terms like "expressionism", which aimed at
distinguishing these artists from the impressionists; but the journalist wouldn't have
that or any other of his alternatives. At last Roger, losing patience, said: "Oh, let's just
call them post-impressionists; at any rate, they came after the impressionists".
In this way, "Manet and the Post-Impressionists" was launched at the Grafton Galleries
and the exhibition took place from November 8, 1910, to January 15, 1911. The selection of
work had largely been the responsibility of Fry. The availability of paintings, the
cooperation of important dealers, and Fry's own taste were factors. Fry persuaded Vollard
to provide paintings by Cezanne, Gauguin and Vlaminck; Druet lent Cezannes and Rouaults;
Kahnweiler lent Vlamincks and Derains, and Bernheim Jeune contributed Manets, Van
Goghs, Signacs and Seurats. Desmond MacCarthy was responsible for negotiating with Van
Gogh's sister-in-law, Johanna Gezina, for the Van Goghs exhibited.
Manet, who received equal billing with the "Post-Impressionists", was relatively well
known in England, owing to the efforts of Whistler, Sickert, Steer and George Moore, who
had helped to foster a gradual awareness of French Impressionism. Manet's work had also
been shown in the spring of 1910 at the international Society Exhibition at the Grafton
Galleries. Few of the other artists at Fry's exhibition were known at all. Among them were
Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Rouault, Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet,
Friesz, and Maillol. Not only did these names group the living and the dead, men known in
artistic circles during the 19th century and men who were attracting attention in Paris in the
early 20th, but there were vast discrepancies in the numbers of works by the various
painters. As a result, certain modes of expression, as well as certain individual styles, were
better represented than others; a unifying style or theme was difficult to locate.
The name Fry coined for the artists was a compromise, born of the needs of the moment
and his exasperation, but, it does, nevertheless, confer some collective identify upon the
group. In his 1920 essay, "Retrospect", he recalled:
"For purposes of convenience it was necessary to give these artists a name, and I chose,
as being the vaguest and most non-commital, the name of Post-Impressionist. This
merely stated their position in time relatively to the Impressionist movement."
The last part of Fry's statement is important. In claiming that the artists whose work he had
assembled came after the Impressionists, he implies that time contributes towards the
formulation of style and that an artist's reaction to his situation in history influences his art.
Initially Fry was uncertain about what stylistic characteristics, if any, his exhibitors
shared. He found the key to a theory once he worked from a negative line of reasoning. The
paintings and drawings he had collected were not only, for the most part, chronologically
later than Impressionism, but the visual organisation of pictorial elements suggested that
the artists, collectively, had rejected Impressionist objectives and techniques.
Fry defined the pivotal aim of Impressionism as mimesis of the three-dimensional,
visible world, believing that French Impressionism was the later 19th century manifestation
of an objective which had, for several centuries, directed Western art towards the rendering
of reality in paint. He expounded his ideas in one of his apologia for the Grafton Gallery
artists, and wrote as follows:
"That they are in revolt against the photographic vision of the nineteenth century, and
even against the tempered realism of the last four hundred years, 1 freely admit. They
represent, indeed, the latest, and, I believe, the most successful, attempt to go behind
the too elaborate pictorial apparatus which the Renaissance established in painting."
Fry realised that, if the French artists were not to be seen by the British public merely
as iconoclasts of naturalism, he would have to stress positive aspects of their achievements.
This essentially conservative public was unsympathetic to Modernism; so Fry suggested not
that the artists were radically innovative, but that they were traditionalists returning to
well-established visual precedents. He argued that the Postimpressionists were "cutting
away the merely representative element in art to establish more and more firmly the
fundamental laws of expressive form in its earliest, most abstract element".
This ideological definition of Postimpressionism rests upon two assumptions. Firstly, a
group of artists had discarded verisimilitude as a conceptual objective and illusionistic
devices as the technical means to render reality. Secondly, the artists were adopting
conventions which had been intrinsic to pre-Renaissance Western art.
By 1912, when Fry wrote the preface to the catalogue of the Second Post-Impressionist
Exhibition, he was able to articulate his theories succinctly. He claimed that the
Postimpressionist artists "attempt to express by pictorial and plastic form certain spritual
experiences" . He elaborated:
"They do not seek to imitate form but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an
equivalent for life ... . In fact, they aim not at illusion but at reality ."
The most important issue raised in this statement is the contention that the artists were
seeking "an equivalent for life". Fry does not propose the autonomy of art or advocate a
totally self-referential nature for art. But he does suggest that the work of art. is an object in
its own right, an empirical reality, and the product of experiences in the physical world.
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* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa