Organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Face to Face is the first exhibition to delve exclusively into the territory of the Neo-Impressionist portrait. If we can call the Neo-Impressionists a family, in the sense they often knew and influenced one another, then we can say that Face to Face — which features 50 oil paintings and drawings by artists ranging from Paul Signac to Vincent Van Gogh — is a family reunion of sorts.
"This exhibition is presenting the really rare opportunity to see these works together and in context," says Ellen Lee, the Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator at the IMA and co-organizer of the exhibition that opens June 15.
The show features works from the Musee D'Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the IMA's substantial Neo-Impressionist collection, the finest in North America, if you ask Lee. Three paintings by Belgian painter Théo van Rysselberghe in the exhibition — portraying three sisters — have never been seen together before on this side of the Atlantic.
"Within a six year period Théo van Rysselberghe painted the three paintings of the Sèthe sisters," says Lee. "So that's why I asked to have the gallery designed specifically to accommodate those works. Each girl owned her own portrait and eventually they wound up in different museums. We've arranged a family reunion of these girls."
Van Rysselberghe's 1888 portrait of Mademoiselle Alice Sèthe merges academic realism with pointillist technique. With Alice's blue dress and her blonde coiffure reflected in a mirror, everything is atomized, yet strikingly whole.
Georges Seurat pioneered pointillism, which became a defining technique for those who would eventually be labeled Neo-Impressionists. But Seurat seldom painted portraits of individual subjects, and thus the show offers the opportunity to look beyond his familiar scenes of urban leisure and explore likely unfamiliar work.
The man arguably responsible for creating a context for the art of Seurat and his gang was the art critic and anarchist Félix Fénéon, who coined the term "Neo-Impressionism." (Fénéon's day job, believe it or not, was as a clerk in the war department of the French Government.) Paul Signac's painting of Fénéon in profile was one of the paintings that Lee considered a "critical piece" for the exhibition.
In fact, obtaining this work — which is seemingly as surreal as it is Neo-Impressionist — was something of a coup. Until this exhibition, the piece had not left New York City in thirty years. With its depiction of a goateed Fénéon in profile proffering a cyclamen to someone outside the frame, and its hallucinogenic colors in the backdrop, this painting shows a side of Neo-Impressionism visitors might not expect.
"The incredible, colorful, swirling backdrop of the portrait is a reference to the color theories that were being used by these artists who created Neo-Impressionism," says Lee. "So it's kind of like a beautiful, dynamic inside joke where Paul Signac the artist understood what Félix Fénéon was reading, and they both were looking at the work of this theorist whose name was Charles Henry. The kaleidoscope in the background is kind of a parody of the theories about color that were the touchstones of Neo-Impressionism and of Georges Seurat's aesthetic. The painting was done in 1890, which was a real high point of the Neo-Impressionist movement."
Another standout painting in the exhibition — "Two Sisters" by Georges Lemmen — is part of the IMA's permanent collection. Regular IMA patrons may have noticed that the piece wasn't on view for most of this year. Having travelled to Brussels, Belgium, it premiered in Face to Face's first stop in February 2014 at the ING Cultural Center. Indianapolis is the sole North American venue for the show.
"I think this is an ideal situation in terms of how a museum works with its temporary exhibition program," says Lee. "We can draw on something is familiar to people and then we can take it a bit further. And then, when the show is gone, we still have a permanent collection that people can go back to."
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