The key to understanding the beginning of modern art can lie in unexpected sources. The exhibition ‘Une vie au fil de l’eau’ at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne, gently prods painting in the direction of the beginning of abstract art with the French painter, Paul Signac (1863-1935).
Straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, Signac followed his friend and fellow painter, Georges Seurat, into “pointillism”, a painting technique where individual dots in different colours make up the image. Imagine pixels, before pixels were born.
Signac and Seurat were labelled Neo-Impressionists, along with Camille Pissarro, Maximilien Luce and Henri-Edmond Cross, all of whom are represented in the same exhibition. The museum-quality paintings are all from a private collection that wishes to remain anonymous, but there is very much the feeling that whoever constituted this panorama was consciously attempting to capture a turning point in art history.
Signac became a painter at a time when photography was being developed, a technique that was to challenge the art of figurative painting. It was also a period of investigation of the physical properties of colour and how different hues can have a power of enhancement when presented together. Particularly influential was the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul whose works inspired the chromatic harmonies of the Pointillistes, much in the way music composers follow the rules of harmony to allow the pleasure of our senses.
The 140 oil paintings, watercolours and drawings are a splendid ensemble that fill the Hermitage with decorative ease, many of them of the seaside and the sea, since Signac was an obsessive sailor. But move up closely to one of his paintings, and the subject matter disappears: observed in isolation the patches become bold announcements of abstract art.