Pointillisme (pointillism) was a pictorial current that emerged around 1885, baptized Neo-Impressionism by the critic F. Fénéon in 1886, the year in which G. Seurat presented La Grande-Jatte (Chicago, Art Institute) at the Salon des Indépendants. An article entitled Neo-Impressionism, in which the technical procedures and aesthetics of the movement were exposed, was also published by Fénéon in the Belgian magazine l’Art Moderne in 1887.
For a long time considered a simple “scientific” extension of Impressionism, pointillisme is now presented as a complex phenomenon whose revaluation has been the subject of recent studies (F. Bellonzi, 1967; R. L. Herbert, 1968; J. Sutter, 1970). Also called chromo-luminarisme or divisionism, pointillisme is first of all a “method” (Seurat) of visual analysis based on a discontinuous pictorial writing, in which the control of the painting process tends to give the canvas a maximum of luminous vibration through the substitution of the impasto with the “optical mixture” and thanks to the “simultaneous contrast” which makes systematic the juxtaposition of the complementary elements deduced from the chromatic circle.
Influenced by the prevailing positivism, the Divisionist theory takes advantage of the progress of chemistry, physics and physiological optics (E. Chevreul, H. L. F. von Helmholtz, J. C. Maxwell, N. O. Rood, etc.), and of some recent techniques (three-color photography, photogravure squares), while continuing to refer to previous pictorial practices (E. Delacroix) of which it is considered the improvement. Gathered around Seurat, undisputed pioneer, and P. Signac, future propagandist of the movement, H.-E. Cross, Ch. Angrand, A. Dubois-Pillet, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, H. Petit-jean, M. Luce, and many others, quickly established themselves as a coherent movement whose fame was not slow to arouse jealousy (P. Gauguin liked to make fun of “Ripipoint”).
The first phase, from the first Salon des Indépendants (1884) to Seurat’s death (1891), seems to have been confined to France and Belgium (A. Boch, Th. Van Rijsselberghe, H. Van de Velde, etc.), the latter having been reached thanks to the participation, from 1887, of many Parisians in the Salon of the Group of Twenty in Brussels. But soon the movement expanded and its spread became European.
The phenomenon is particularly spectacular in Italy where, introduced in 1891, is integrated with neo-romantic and symbolist currents, of which V. Grubicy de Dragon (1851-1920), promoter and critic of the group, G. Previati (1852-1920), G. Segantini (1858-1899) and G. Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907) are the most significant representatives. From the decomposition of the prism, we move on to the decomposition of the movement, a fact that explains the Divisionist beginnings of Futurism (G. Severini, U. Boccioni, C. Carrà). But it can be said that almost all the great painters of the early twentieth century went through a pointillist phase, and the great diffusion of the procedure, which was often nothing more than a convenient expedient to dress up realistic (Van Rijsselberghe), or even academic (H. Martin) works with a varnish of modernism, clarifies the reason for the variety of its uses and reveals its fundamental ambivalence.
Derived from the Impressionist comma, which he tried to submit to a rigorous discipline, the point was also of the “stain”, an instrument of awareness of the characteristic value of the unfinished (G. Vasari, M. Boschini, Baudelaire). In the context of empirical speculations on perception, this unit of invoice, anciently conceived as a luminous notation (theory of reflections in R. de Piles, of the color of shadows from Leonardo onwards), ended up being considered an atom of vision (J. Ruskin’s “sensation”), from which would later derive the attempt to render the retinal mosaic on canvas.
It is clear that this process of recording a visual experience was inevitable to establish itself as a system of organization of an autonomous pictorial surface: controlled, the brushstroke becomes a rhythmic module, a principle of composition (macrostructures, from Signac to N. de Staël); spontaneous, it fully assumes its graphological value and becomes a subjective principle (from Van Gogh to action painting). Indirectly, the emancipation of pure color (early Fauves, Orphism, Section d’Or) and the emancipation of the pictorial fabric (Nabis, Cubists, P. Klee, J. Dubuffet) also derive from Seurat, which is to painting what timbre is to music. Signac was right: Divisionist technique carried within itself the germs of an aesthetic. But it was that of expression rather than objectivity, of abstraction and not imitation.