This is about two different kinds of painters bound by a shared dislike. Neither artist thought Impressionism was a good idea. Their work on view in an exhibit tagged “Post-Impressionism in Europe” at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona unwittingly makes the case.
Both Georges Seurat and Piet Mondrian, like their fellow Post-Impressionists, were as different from one another as they were from the Impressionists. Seurat and Mondrian wrote off the Impressionist’s idea of picturing momentary visual effect in the external world, although they did it in different ways – figuratively and abstractly, respectively. .
Seurat didn’t like Impressionism’s spontaneous look and sought something more premeditated and invented Pointillism ( small dots to form images). He was so exacting that he painted thirty-eight studies and twenty-three preparatory drawings for his most famous work, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The painting teems with thousands of tiny dots that constitute the Paris park, the people, and the water.
The apparent lifelessness that this painting-by-dots technique evokes is arguably the main point of the painting. Rather than blur life’s boundaries out of existence, as did the Impressionists of his day, Seurat described the Parisian working class with blank faces and wooden figures and with little or no interaction. Frozen in boredom and malaise, the figures stand like emblems of the dehumanized rigidity of modern life. His trademark, regularized dots, with their regimented look, seems to emphasize that very dehumanization.
Mondrian started out painting landscapes the way Impressionists would.
But given the chaos of modern life, he opted for order and a kind of
purity by containing unmixed primary colors in grids of straight black
lines. Not that Mondrian’s grids are without life. He enlivened them through the drama of contrast. The tension between line and shape, between the vertical and horizontal direction of the lines, and between the colored squares and black lines all serve to create life in each square. In that sense, Mondrian expressed reality in its purest form.
Mondrian was a leading theorist of abstraction and wrote nearly one hundred thousand words on the subject for Neoplasticism (Paris, 1920). “All painting is composed of line and color… [and] they must be freed from their bondage to the imitation of nature and allowed to exist for themselves.” He furthered his argument against recognizable imagery this way: “Non-figurative art shows that art is not the expression of the appearance of reality such as we see it, nor of the life which we live, but that it is the expression of true reality and true life… indefinable, but realizable.”
Given their dissatisfaction with Impressionism, tagging artists like Seurat and Mondrian Post-Impressionists is like calling, Pop Art, say, Post-Abstract Expressionism. Art movements that follow one another are far from follow-ups to what came before, they’re outright rebellions against them. If nothing else, for the sake of historic accuracy, Seurat and Matisse should be called Anti-Impressionists. Tagging them Post-Impressionists hardly tells their story.