The Joy Of Color

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It may not signify too much in judging his paintings, but Paul Signac (1863-1935) had what comparatively few artists--or people of any kind, for that matter--ever get: an enviably happy life, whose pleasures never reduced him to complacency. He was well off--and generous in buying his friends' pictures. He was talented. He loved the sea and was able to exercise that love by constantly cruising the Mediterranean coast of France in an 11-m cutter christened, in homage to Edouard Manet's infamous nude, the Olympia. (His first and much smaller boat he named, to show his artistic affiliations, the Manet-Zola-Wagner, a heavy cargo for a mere day sailer to carry.) He "discovered" St.-Tropez long before tourism did, and built there a big rambling house, La Hune, which was his base and which still, happily, belongs to his descendants.

Signac was also an energetic and talented writer, an avid reader and bibliophile, and an ardent backer of the avant-garde in the days when that word actually meant something. "The golden age has not passed," ran the subtitle he appended to an enormous didactic canvas, In the Time of Harmony, 1893-95. "It lies in the future." The picture set out to depict the joys of anarchist cooperation: free love, picnics, games of boule on the beach, farm labor made easy by a steam-powered reaper in the distance. What in fact lay in the future was the trenches of Flanders and the murderous October Revolution. Luckily for him, Signac did not have the gift of prophecy, and even his anarchism belonged to the Belle Epoque.

He was filled with idealistic dreams of fraternal love and spontaneous world order. None of the painters in his circle were untouched by anarchist ideas, particularly those of Pyotr Kropotkin. Some, notably Maximilian Luce, were vigorous activists, marked down by the police. Signac was never that militant, but his best friend among critics, Felix Feneon, was always suspected (though this was never proved) of having helped carry out a deadly bomb attack on a fashionable Paris restaurant, Foyot's. Signac never hurt anyone, though he was right in the thick of the closest relationship between political and aesthetic radicalism that the 19th century could show. In sum, he seems to have had no enemies, an almost incredible achievement in any art world. Lucky the artist who can boast such a life--not that Signac was given to bragging.

Signac and Georges Seurat were the leaders of a group awkwardly styled the neo-Impressionists. Seurat has always been seen as the inventor, Signac as the follower. This unfairly simple view should, with luck, be dispelled by the retrospective of some 120 oils, watercolors and drawings by Signac on view through Dec. 30 at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, its only venue in the U.S.

The show is not to be missed. Signac, for much of his life, was a terrific painter: tough, contemplative, highly sensitive to color and gifted in the organization of forms. Sometimes his pictures are a little pedantic: he goes at his shapes with the stolid determination of a silkworm chewing its way across a mulberry leaf. But the best of them are filled with a joy in life that Seurat, a curiously melancholy artist some of the time, couldn't top. Signac makes you feel--really feel, not just think--what it can be like to be in a world ruled by the pleasure of color and by the calm reflection that is, so to speak, its postcoital afterglow.

Signac never achieved a masterpiece of the order of Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but how many painters have? In the late 1880s and early 1890s, though, he brought off a sequence of ravishingly beautiful landscapes that stand with the best of late 19th century art, along with some remarkable figure paintings.

The latter include the somber and acerbic hymn of hate to the boredom French lefty intellectuals always attribute to respectable middle-class life, Sunday, 1888-1890. (Does the worthy proletariat ever suffer from ennui? Apparently not.) Nothing is happening. A young husband in a stiff jacket and striped pants is poking the fireplace in a desultory way. His wife stares out the window, her back to us. The folds and pleats of her costume, intensely formal, suggest a caryatid--but a caryatid with nothing at all to support and nothing whatever to do. An equally bored-looking cat, if cats can look bored, hesitates between the two of them. The very air is congested with the excessive patterns of a middle-class interior, with its ugly mock-Henri II furniture. It manages to be monumentally static, miserable and funny, all at once.

At the opposite extreme from this image is Signac's wonderful and bizarre Portrait of Felix Feneon, Opus 217, 1890-91--the fox-jawed face with its little tuft of beard in profile, the hand holding a cyclamen, against a madly spiraling background of fruit-jelly abstract forms. The dandified, loony energy of Feneon's argot-filled writing seems impacted into that background, even though its source is a Japanese kimono pattern. My, you think, those guys must have had some laughs together. Which they did.

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