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Radiance: NGV's neo-Impressionist summer

The National Gallery of Victoria's latest exhibition introduces us to the extraordinary personalities who contributed to the birth and development of neo-Impressionism in France and Belgium from the 1880s through to the outbreak of the First World War.

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When Georges Seurat unveiled his huge painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in Paris in 1886, he shocked the Parisian art scene to its core.

Instead of mixing colours on the palette or the canvas, Seurat had, with great patience and precision, placed lozenges of block colours side by side on the canvas. Known as pointillism, the idea was to make colours more vibrant as they hit the viewer's eyes.

"What he was on about was the notion that by applying individual dabs of colour side by side, because they bounce off each other, that creates light when it hits our retina," explains the National Gallery of Victoria's senior curator of international art, Ted Gott.

Paul Signac's <i>Rainbow</i> (Venice). Click for more photos

Radiance : The Neo-Impressionists

Paul Signac's Rainbow (Venice). Photo: Joe Armao

  • Paul Signac's <i>Rainbow</i> (Venice).
  • Paul SIGNAC, French 1863-1935
Gasometers at Clichy (Les gazom-tres. Clichy) 1886.
  • Georges SEURAT, French 1859-91
Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp) 1885.
  • Maximilien LUCE, French 1858-1941
The port of Saint-Tropez (Le Port de Saint-Tropez) 1893.
  • Henri-Edmond CROSS
French 1856-1910
Mediterranean shores 1895.
  • Theo VAN RYSSELBERGHE
Belgian 1862-1926, Tea in the garden (1903).
  • Theo VAN RYSSELBERGHE
Belgian 1862-1926, Girl in a straw hat (Portrait of Elisabeth van Rysselberghe).
  • Maximilien LUCE
French 1858-1941
Cathedral at Gisors (La cathedrale de Gisors) 1898.
  • Maximilien Luce 1892, Coffee.
  • Maximilien Luce 1892, View of London.
  • Dr Ted Gott, Head of International Art, NGV. Theo Van Rysselberghe, The Canal in Flanders.
  • Theo Van Rysselberghe, Portrait of Alice Sethe.

This highly scientific method, which drew on colour and optical theories of the time, formed the technical basis of neo-Impressionism, the subject of a new exhibition entitled Radiance, which opens at the NGV on Friday.

"[Seurat] also hoped that another thing would happen, which he called the optical mix," Dr Gott says. "He hoped that when you stood far enough back from the painting, the tiny lozenges of colour would create a third colour in the viewer's eye. That doesn't always work, but what always does work is this incredible luminosity."

Seurat died suddenly from diptheria at just 31, so his great friend and artist Paul Signac became the movement's leader and champion, encouraging other artists to work in the style. Notable among them were Maximilien Luce, Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe and, in the later stages of the movement, Henri Matisse, who adopted the style while spending a summer with Signac at his home in Saint-Tropez.

The neo-Impressionists were also not interested in using naturalistic colours, nor in creating three-dimensional depth.

"By applying their dabs of colour side by side they realised that they were creating an obvious two-dimensional surface, and they found that to be very modern," Dr Gott says.

"So what they're inviting us to do is not to pretend that we're looking at reality, but to appreciate painting on a different level, to appreciate the skill of the artist in creating the composition and applying the individual dabs of colour in such a scientific way."

While the exhibition does not feature Seurat's La Grande Jatte – it has not left the Art Institute of Chicago since the 1950s – there are several other Seurat works on display, including Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp (1885) and The Seine at Courbevoie (1885).

Several works by Luce and van Rysselberghe are also in the exhibition, including Dr Gott's two favourites: van Rysselberghe's Canal in Flanders, gloomy weather (1894) and Luce's Coffee (1892).

Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists opens tomorrow and is on until March 17 at NGV International