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Post-Impressionism

1. History and application of the term

Source: Oxford University Press

After considering more substantive terms such as ‘expressionism’, Fry settled on ‘Post-Impressionism’ for the title of the exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in 1910–11, as this did no more than point out that the Post-Impressionists came after the Impressionists. From the beginning he admitted that the label was not descriptive of a single style. The catalogue preface, written by Fry with Desmond MacCarthy, secretary to the gallery, but not signed by either, begins (1910–11 exh. cat., p. 7):The pictures collected together in the present exhibition are the work of a group of artists who cannot be defined by any single term. The term ‘Synthetists’, which has been applied to them by learned criticism, does indeed express a shared quality underlying their diversity; and it is the critical business of this introduction to expand the meaning of that word, which sounds too much like the hiss of an angry gander to be a happy appellation.For Fry and MacCarthy the only common denominator between the Post-Impressionist painters was their rejection of Impressionism (1910–11 exh. cat., p. 7):In no school does individual temperament count for more. In fact, it is the boast of those who believe in this school, that its methods enable the individuality of the artist to find completer self-expression in his work than is possible to those who have committed themselves to representing objects more literally … the Post-Impressionists consider the Impressionists too naturalistic.

The full title of the exhibition was Manet and the Post-Impressionists, although Manet was represented by fewer works (nine) than the painters of the next generation. There were, for example, forty-six works by Gauguin, twenty-five by van Gogh and twenty-one by Cézanne. Other artists whose work was shown included Seurat (two works), Paul Sérusier (five), Maurice Denis (five), Félix Vallotton (four) and Odilon Redon (three). The Fauves were represented by Albert Marquet (five), Henri Manguin (four), Maurice de Vlaminck (eight) and André Derain (three). The two paintings by Matisse and the three by Picasso were supplemented by numerous drawings and sculptures by both. Fry felt that Manet had begun the rejection of the Impressionists’ realistic goals and that Cézanne was Manet’s heir. Gauguin and van Gogh concurred in their rejection of nature in favour of expressing emotion in their works. According to Fry, Cézanne most distinctly marked the transition away from naturalism. He ‘aimed first at a design which would produce the coherent, architectural effect of the masterpieces of primitive art’ (1910–11 exh. cat., p. 10). Cézanne’s goal was to move away from the ‘complexity of the appearance of things to the geometrical simplicity which design demands’ (1910–11 exh. cat., p. 10). Fry viewed Gauguin as more of a theorist than a painter, claiming that his interest was ‘the fundamental laws of abstract form’ and ‘the power which abstract form and colour can exercise over the imagination of the spectator’ (1910–11 exh. cat., p. 11). Van Gogh was singled out for his Romantic temperament. Fry’s initial definition of Post-Impressionism excluded Neo-Impressionism, even though he included two works by Seurat in the exhibition. Of the generation following Gauguin, Cézanne and van Gogh, only Matisse was mentioned in the catalogue preface. He was praised for the fact that his ‘search for an abstract harmony of line, for rhythm, has been carried to lengths which often deprive the figure of all appearance of nature’ (1910–11 exh. cat., p. 11).

In 1912 Fry organized a second Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Galleries . While he had concentrated the first solely on French artists, in the second he admitted that the movement had existed in England and Russia as well. He therefore included works by such English artists as Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis and by such Russian artists as Natal’ya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. He disparaged the Post-Impressionist painting in European countries outside France, England and Russia, writing: ‘Post-Impressionist schools are flourishing, one might say raging in Switzerland, Austro-Hungary and most of Germany. But so far as I have discovered, they have not added any positive element to the general stock of ideas.’ His introduction to the ‘French Group’ concentrated on Cézanne and ignored both van Gogh and Gauguin. There were, however, more works by Matisse and the Fauves than before. The development of Cubism was also highlighted by a large number of works by Picasso.

The one area of late 19th-century French art that Fry left unexplored was Symbolism. Of its pioneers, Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes developed their style and aesthetic before Impressionism, while Odilon Redon (whose work was included in the 1910–11 exhibition) developed his contemporaneously with Impressionism. Symbolism exerted its most powerful influence on the artists of the generations immediately following the Impressionists. By its contribution to the redirection of art from the external to the internal world and by its rejection of the superficiality of Impressionism, Symbolism is characteristically Post-Impressionist. Though imprecise, the term ‘Post-Impressionism’ remains widely used: John Rewald used it as the title for his encyclopedic work, Post Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin, first published in 1956, although he limited his attention to French artists. The exhibition entitled Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting, held at the Royal Academy, London, in 1979–80, attempted to broaden the term to include works by a variety of such European artists as Carlo Carrà, Lovis Corinth, James Ensor, Erich Heckel, Fernand Hodler, Fernand Khnopff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Giovanni Segantini, James McNeill Whistler and many others.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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