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0044 Katherine Brion, Paul Signac's Decorative Propaganda of the 1890s

RIHA Journal 0044 | 14 July 2012 | Special Issue "New Directions in New-Impressionism"

This article is part of the Special Issue "New Directions in Neo-Impressionism." The issue is guest-edited by Tania Woloshyn and Anne Dymond in cooperation with Regina Wenninger and Anne-Laure Brisac-Chraïbi from RIHA Journal. External peer reviewers for this Special Issue were Hollis Clayson, André Dombrowski, Chantal Georgel, Catherine Meneux, Robyn Roslak, and Michael Zimmermann.

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Paul Signac's Decorative Propaganda of the 1890s*

Katherine Brion


In the 1890s the political and artistic ambitions of the neo-impressionist artist Paul Signac were embodied by a series of decorative projects. This article contends that Signac, inspired by anarcho-communist discourse and the prospect of revolution, attempted to synthesize in these works the didactic logic of propaganda and "purely aesthetic emotion." This synthesis was epitomized by the explicit deployment of two systems, divisionism and decorative pattern. With these systems, Signac hoped to initiate contemporary viewers into the aesthetic and social harmony of an anarcho-communist future. In the interest of addressing larger audiences, particularly among workers, he imagined proletarian spaces for his work. But the didactic elements of Signac's painting met with critical resistance, and public sites he envisioned never materialized. Faced with this lack of recognition, and with a diminished revolutionary outlook in the wake of the Procès des Trente, Signac focused his painting on atemporal landscapes. This trajectory has been read as one of aesthetic liberation; this article seeks to retrieve the extent to which it was also one of constraint, tied to the frustration of Signac's political aspirations.



  1. In a 26 December 1894 journal entry, the neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) wrote:

Félix remarks to Thevenot that anarchist terrorism has done much more for propaganda than twenty years of Reclus or Kropotkin's brochures. He demonstrates the logic of the various attacks […] It's the attack of [Émile] Henry, directed at the electors – perhaps guiltier than the elected, whom they force to serve as deputies – that seems to him the most 'anarchist.'1

  1. Félix Fénéon (18461-1944), Signac's friend and fellow anarchist, was commenting on a series of anarchist terrorist attacks (attentats) that struck Paris, beginning in the 1880s and culminating in a wave of terrorist violence from 1892 to 1894.2 Fénéon – who had spent much of the preceding summer in Mazas prison, accused of a similar attack on the restaurant Foyot – singled out Émile Henry's bombing of "innocent" patrons at the Café Terminus for particular praise.3 Unchastened by imprisonment or his narrow acquittal at trial, the Fénéon of Signac's journal argued decisively for a violent form of la propagande par le fait (propaganda by the deed): action as the means of gaining adherents to the anarchist cause, and, ultimately, of dismantling the capitalist socio-economic order.4 The critic gave theoretical propaganda – the anarcho-communist "brochures" of Élisée Reclus and Pierre Kropotkin – short shrift.5 In the debate over what form of propaganda best served anarchist revolution, Fénéon's position was clear.

  2. Events suggest Signac's contrary view on the matter.6 Even as anarchist "deeds" continued to strike Paris, and Signac's friends and colleagues fled or were rounded up in mass arrests of anarchist sympathizers, the artist was working on a rather apposite image: Au temps d'harmonie: l'âge d'or n'est pas dans le passé, il est dans l'avenir (In Time of Harmony: The Golden Age is not in the Past, It is in the Future), 1894-95 (Fig. 4).7 Not only did this vision of a harmonious anarchist future occlude the violence that had become anarchism's public face in this period, but it also provided the kind of didactic image demanded by anarchist theorists like Kropotkin and Jean Grave.8 Furthermore, Signac's direct involvement with anarcho-communist publications, whether books, journals, or brochures, would only increase over the next decade.9

  3. Nevertheless, the relationship between Signac's work and "propaganda by the deed" is more complex than this bare summary allows, and in this article I will explore the conceptual space opened up by Fénéon's comment, and Signac's lack of editorial. The painter, I think, was struck by the terms of Fénéon's argument: the privileging of action over theory, and the association of logic with violence. Fénéon's praise of the latter was both similar and antithetical to Signac's own reflections on the revolutionary efficacy of art. In the 1890s, Signac attempted to transcend the division between theory and action, between propaganda and aesthetics, with an artistic intervention analogous in some ways to propaganda by the deed: the art of painting as a non-verbal act that would unite emotion and reason to "awaken popular consciousness."10 But in place of explosives, Signac used explicit decorative line and color. In place of mangled bodies, he aimed for the solidarity of free association. And in place of momentary rupture and violence (the "summary glow" of the bomb), Signac sought an enduring aesthetic and social harmony.11


Propaganda and Revolution

  1. As crystallized in the writings of Kropotkin, Reclus and Grave, anarcho-communist theory called for the destruction of the capitalist state and the elimination of its foundation, private property.12 This revolution would make way for a more "natural" form of existence: a stateless society in which individuals could freely associate in the context of small local communities, each owning the means of production; the loose federation of these communities would mirror the anarchist ideal of individual autonomy within the collective. In contrast to communists and socialists, anarcho-communists stressed the capacity of exemplary actions and words to result in a spontaneous, popular outpouring of revolutionary fervor. The people needed to be made aware, through propaganda, of their ongoing oppression under the current economic and social regime. Propaganda required careful organization; with its success, the revolution would organize itself.13 Hence the centrality of propaganda to the anarchist cause. But this focus raised the following questions: how was revolutionary awareness best achieved, and what relation would it bear to actual revolt? In late-19th-century France, the answers centered on the debate over "propaganda by the deed" and "theoretical propaganda."

  2. "Propaganda by the deed" – a concept in keeping with Michael Bakunin's final privileging of action over ideas – emerged out of anti-authoritarian reflection and practice during the 1870s.14 It was perceived as the solution to an entwined problem: the need to spread revolutionary consciousness among the masses, and the frustration of militants with the failure of their propaganda to generate mass insurrection.15 Anarchist theorists such as Paul Brousse and Kropotkin concluded that overt insurrectional action was an ideal means to attack the oppressive social order and/or realize anarchist ideals, while providing the people with concrete, exemplary deeds.16 In the words of Brousse, the anarchist "idea will appear, not on paper, nor in a journal, nor in a painting; it will not be sculpted in marble, nor carved in stone, nor cast in bronze: it will walk, in flesh and bone, living, before the people."17 In other words, "propaganda by the deed" bypassed all forms of representation, including art, by putting theory into practice. The deed's potential to transform into outright revolt blurred the boundary between propaganda and revolution. Even if this transformation failed to materialize, anarchists could console themselves with the deed's value as propaganda: its "living" presence, no matter how short-lived, furnished the desired anarchist examples; its extinction at the hands of authority highlighted capitalist oppression; both drew attention to the anarchist cause.18

  3. In the period following its inception, the concept of "propaganda by the deed" was subject to two main developments. First, the term became indissoluble from violent terrorist acts, namely bombings, thefts and assassinations.19 Second, anarcho-communist enthusiasm for such action waned.20 While exhortations to violence could still be found, well into the nineties, in publications like Émile Pouget's Le Père Peinard, figures like Kropotkin, Reclus, and Grave had reversed their position on the matter. As indicated in La Révolte, they had concluded that man's insufficiently advanced state of consciousness necessitated a "time of propaganda."21 Inflammatory rhetoric and action should be deferred to a period of imminent revolution:

It is not a matter of taking action, but of spreading ideas that create men of action […] [A]narchists […] must seek to lead individuals to reason for themselves, […] to become capable of directing their own acts […] They must not act solely on the impulse of whatever cerebral exacerbation leads an individual to commit acts, possibly violent, the significance of which he is unaware, and which leave him without force or energy once the paroxysm has passed, allowing himself be enslaved again.22

  1. The journal's articles regularly insisted on the importance of logic and reason for both the creation and reception of anarchist propaganda. In contrast, the actions associated with "propaganda by the deed" were mistrusted as unreflective, unconscious manifestations of excessive emotion and feeling.23 Without the preparation of reasoned propaganda, insurrectional action subjugated rather than enfranchised, thereby delaying an enduring, collective revolution. So, while Fénéon emphasized the logic of the attentats when arguing for their superiority as propaganda, the contributors to La Révolte saw logic as antithetical to such deeds.24 Before the terrorism of the early 1890s, Jean Grave's circle had already repudiated the notion that individual terrorist acts could synthesize propaganda and deed. They portrayed such acts as individual manifestations without collective results, and deferred revolution to a time when the masses would be ready.


Art and Propaganda

  1. The discussions of propaganda by the deed in La Révolte had a number of affinities with Grave's conception of art, perhaps explaining his initial disinterest in the latter. While Pouget had already initiated a visual campaign in keeping with his inflammatory rhetoric, in 1891 Grave largely deferred the "question of art," implying that it was the kind of individualist endeavor best reserved for a future anarchist society.25 When Grave later enlisted the work of artists for La Révolte's successor, Les Temps Nouveaux, he framed it as a means to sell propaganda rather than as a form of propaganda itself.26 Nevertheless, he urged engaged artists to deploy their work in the service of the people, making them aware – through explicit anarchist iconography – of their oppression, as well as the benefits of an anarchist future.27 In 1899, Grave expressed his disappointment with the results, by criticizing the inability of contemporary art to "unite the cold reason of the work of propaganda with art's emotional fervor."28 Since art, according to Grave, was associated with emotions, the senses, and the unconscious, it was vulnerable to the same critiques as "propaganda by the deed." "[E]motional fervor" was not so far from "cerebral exacerbation," and Grave spoke of the viewer's subjection to, rather than emancipation by, art's "charm."29 The question, then, was how to rationalize art for the purpose of revolutionary awareness.

  2. This is a question that Signac was already attempting to answer during the late 1880s. Anarchist discourse on art and propaganda encouraged him to think about the role of his art as a form of rational propaganda. But it might also have encouraged him to see his art in terms of the qualities associated with "propaganda by the deed": art as an impassioned, intuitive act. For Signac, the association of art with action lay not so much in the realm of iconography as in that of form. He indicated as much in an anonymous editorial published in La Révolte, in which he equated "impressionists" and "revolutionaries."30 In the text, Signac associated the neo-impressionist technique with both scientific logic and the emotion of art, ultimately disassociating art's revolutionary import from its subject matter. Opening with an evocation of the recent exhibition of impressionist (i.e. neo-impressionist) painting at the Salon des Indépendants, Signac contrasted jeering bourgeois attendees with an "intrigued" proletarian viewership.31 He saw the former's dismissal and the latter's interest as indicative of the neo-impressionists' "revolutionary tendency," embodied in their technical innovation: "with a more logical and scientific placement of tones and colors, they replace outdated methods."32 Though he did link neo-impressionism's revolutionary character with its subject matter, Signac placed more emphasis on the painter's communication of the "purely aesthetic emotion" felt before his subject: in other words, the emotion generated by purely formal means such as line, color and composition. It was this aesthetic emotion that revealed the subject's "unconscious, social character," and its participation in the "great social trial that begins between workers and Capital."33 It was counterproductive, Signac argued, to demand an explicitly social art, since art's social character "will appear more strongly and eloquently in the pure aesthetes, revolutionaries by temperament, who leave the beaten path to paint what they see, as they feel it, and who very often unconsciously deal a solid blow of the pick to the old social edifice."34

  3. With his emphasis on both the logic and science of the neo-impressionist technique, and the social character of aesthetic emotion, Signac implied that neo-impressionist painting had taken art's revolutionary role even further. By uniting the logic of propaganda with the emotional power associated with art and deed, neo-impressionism constituted an aesthetic act that was a conscious "blow of the pick." According to Signac, workers responded with a "sympathetic reserve," a description that evoked both emotion and awareness, and was a far cry from the subjugated viewer later portrayed by Grave.35


"Un Félix décoratif"

  1. As the exposition of his artistic and revolutionary convictions, Signac's letter to La Révolte implicitly aligned the paintings exhibited at the Independants with revolutionary acts. Signac's own contributions to the show contained none of the suburban, bourgeois or labor imagery of previous years – motifs that could be read explicitly in social terms. Instead, Signac exhibited some landscapes and his astonishing Portrait de Félix Fénéon, Opus 127 (Sur l'émail d'un fond rythmique de mesures et d'angles, de tons et de teintes, portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890) (Portrait of Félix Fénéon, Opus 127 [Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of Félix Fénéon in 1890]), 1890-1891 (Fig. 1).36 Decked out with a bright yellow coat, top hat, gloves and cane, Fénéon stares to the left, set in profile against a wheel of decorative, abstract motifs spinning in the opposite direction. In his right hand the critic holds a cyclamen, offering it to someone beyond the frame, or perhaps in homage to the colorful backdrop itself.37

1 Paul Signac, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon, Opus 127 (Portrait of Félix Fénéon, Opus 127), 1890-1891, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York (© Museum of Modern Art.Reprod. from: Anne Distel, Signac. 1863-1935, Paris 2001, p. 203, cat. 51)

  1. Indeed, as the painting's subtitle indicates, this "rhythmic" backdrop is as much the star of the painting as Fénéon (as several critics deplored). Through the abstract motifs, Signac asserted its status as a vector of a "purely aesthetic emotion." Not content with merely bypassing traditional conceptions of painting as representation – as a window – Signac simultaneously referenced and denied the conventions commonly used to establish representational illusion: the white "petals" and stars above Fénéon's right arm obey the rules of perspectival recession, but are unmoored from any fuller indication of illusionary space; the green orb punches a "hole" in the swirling, decorative pattern to the right of Fénéon's head.38 This duality of visual effect is echoed in the "wheel," whose curved sections, with their clock-wise orientation, give the impression that the backdrop is endlessly spinning. As these sections taper to a vanishing point they seem to both recede into, and flow out from, their fulcrum.39 All of this serves to emphasize Signac's painting as perpetual aesthetic action rather than fixed representation.40

  2. If this action could be said to go beyond the formal, it was thanks in part to the "scientific aesthetic" of Charles Henry, whose influence Signac made clear with the use of the terms "rhythmic," "measures" and "angles."41 Henry argued that abstract visual elements (notably colors, lines and forms) created pleasurable or painful sensations in the viewing subject. Since Henry tied this pleasure and pain to form's capacity to energize (when "dynamogène") or inhibit the viewing subject, painting could be conceived of as both an act and a stimulus to act.42 This conception of form was well suited to Signac's artistic and revolutionary ambitions. In the portrait he took care to arrange the wheel for dynamogenous effects highlighted by inhibitory accents, in accordance with the idea that "the unpleasant hyperesthetizes [i.e. hypersensitizes]; the pleasant anesthetizes."43 In its attempt to render, through painful sensation, the viewer more sensitive to the painting's harmonious dynamogeny, Fénéon's portrait is arguably the most deed-like of Signac's paintings. Just as anarchist bombs attempted to attack the social structure and inspire revolution, Signac tried to awaken consciousness through a decorative explosion that would deal "a solid blow of the pick to the old social edifice."44 One cannot help but see the portrait as the antithesis of the stuffy bourgeois apartment depicted in Un Dimanche (A Sunday), 1888-1890 (Fig. 2), as if the latter's profusion of decorative motifs had exploded from their moorings in rugs and bibelots, coalescing into an enamel wall that is itself perpetually imploding and exploding.45

  3. But if the "scientific aesthetic" provided the justification of form-as-act, it also provided the logic, science, and didactic awareness associated with theoretical propaganda. After all, Henry held that form's effects could be predicted and measured, allowing him to deduce, through psychophysics, the universal "laws" of formal expression.46 Synthesizing earlier aesthetic theories, Henry endowed the orchestration of aesthetic emotion and sensation with a (supposedly) mathematical, scientific rigor.

2 Paul Signac, Un Dimanche (A Sunday), 1888-90, oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm. Private Collection (© Archives Signac. Reprod. from: Françoise Cachin, Signac. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre, Paris 2000, p. 27, cat. 197)

  1. The search for a science of art had motivated Signac's original adoption, along with Georges Seurat (1859-1891), of the neo-impressionist technique, and when writing on the movement in 1886, Fénéon attributed the division of color to a scientific understanding of the behavior of light, pigment, and their effect on the eye.47 But Henry's aesthetic shifted the emphasis from an empiricist justification of neo-impressionist facture to one that originated in the artwork itself: formal elements, independent of what they might represent, became a sure, effective and universal means of determining aesthetic emotion. In his 1899 D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme, Signac emphasized the term "divisionism" over that of "pointillism," distinguishing the formal purity, contrast, and harmony of the former from the latter's slavish imitation of nature.48 This distinction confirmed Signac's preoccupation with the psychophysical impact, rather than the representational empiricism, of his technique.49

  2. The "scientific aesthetic" was also an attempt to make form's unconscious effects accessible to consciousness. Henry wrote treatises explaining his theories and their practical application, which he accompanied with instruments – among them a "chromatic circle" and an "aesthetic protractor" – designed to help determine the psychophysical valence of colors and forms.50 When Signac used these instruments in the creation of illustrations, calculations and promotional works for Henry's lectures and publications, he was hoping to increase aesthetic awareness, enabling viewers to apply logic and reason to aesthetic emotion.51 In Fénéon's portrait (Fig. 1), the citation of Henry's terminology and the use of abstract forms indicated the same didactic impulse. Signac had added another system to that of divisionism: decorative patterns and motifs, manifesting as explicitly as possible the "laws" of linear expression.52

  3. The "decorative" character of Fénéon's portrait, to which I have alluded thus far only in passing, was therefore about more than the abstracted forms in its background, or their affinities with patterns and shapes found in the decorative arts. When proposing the portrait to Fénéon in reciprocation for the latter's flattering profile in Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui (which included a discussion of Signac's collaboration with Henry), Signac implicitly aligned "decorative" aesthetics with psychophysical aesthetics. He wrote: "It will in no way be a banal portrait, but rather a very composed picture, very arranged in lines and tints […] A decorative Félix."53 Decorative painting, I argue, was Signac's attempt to produce, logically and transparently, harmonious sensation. Decorative form was well-suited to this task because of the adjective's polysemy, which simultaneously invoked: 1) the self-sufficiency of pure form, denuded of any representational function; 2) the "purely aesthetic emotion" produced by these abstracted elements; and 3) the unconscious, universal principles that governed harmonious formal expression.54 Henry's aesthetic represented an attempt at the conscious recuperation of these instinctive principles.

  4. The connection of decorative painting with visual harmony was particularly appropriate to Henry's ideas on psychophysical and social harmony, which echoed anarchist visions of free individuals living in collective harmony.55 According to Henry, "to help the normal development of art is also to further the realization of our still far-off destiny – the creation of universal harmony."56 In a profile of Signac for Les Hommes d'aujourd'hui – which had generated the idea for the portrait – Fénéon highlighted a similar concept in relation to decoration, that of synthesis.57 Henry distanced harmony from the present by projecting it into a far-off future; in a passage that Robyn Roslak has argued is critical to an understanding of Signac's artistic ambitions, Fénéon associated decorative synthesis with material and temporal transcendence.58 The critic wrote that once the neo-impressionist technique of optical mixture had provided a vehicle for the artist's latent qualities:

M. Paul Signac was able to create exemplary specimens of an art of great decorative development, which sacrifices anecdote to arabesque, nomenclature to synthesis, the fleeting to the permanent, and […] confers on Nature, which at last grew weary of its precarious reality, an authentic Reality.59

  1. The use of the term "synthesis" here implies the transcendence of disparate elements (the enumeration of nomenclature), including antitheses.60 Dialectic was in fact central to Seurat's notion of harmony: "Art is harmony, Harmony is the analogy of Opposites, the analogy of Similarities – of tone, tint and line."61 Yet, unless they wished to criticize neo-impressionist painting, critics largely emphasized an overall decorative unity, which they associated with a harmony of repose; in the words of Fénéon, "a harmonious and nostalgic dream in light."62 With its profusion of contrasts, the Fénéon portrait seems designed for anything but. In addition to the imploding/exploding backdrop, and the contrast of dynamogenous and inhibitory angles, directions, and colors, Signac juxtaposed the figure of Fénéon and the abstract, "rhythmic background." The juxtaposition resulted in the pairing of an esoteric, private joke – indicated by Fénéon's bright yellow coat, bizarre pose and obscurely symbolic flower – and an explicit exposition of theory.63 Signac also opposed small, isolated motifs in the lower-right corner (around Fénéon's body) with curved and flowing lines in the upper-left corner, where the patterns seem to roil in response to Fénéon's proffered cyclamen. In this light, the background becomes a decorative balancing act, a dialectical harmony conjured up and controlled by Fénéon.

  2. This balancing act reflected Signac's own juggling of a complex dialectic. On the one hand, there were the individualized freedoms of pure aesthetics, of color and emotion, and of artistic "deed." Anarchist theorists like Grave associated these elements with an art of the ideal future rather than of an engaged present, arguing that current efforts needed to be directed at collective awareness.64 On the other hand, Signac attempted to make individual artistic freedom relevant to the present by endowing it with the qualities of propaganda. His aesthetic theories were given concrete form as explicit, didactic formal systems, namely divisionism and abstract linearity. With his decorative "enamel" – particularly its decorative patterns, which most explicitly combined the aesthetic and the didactic – Signac attempted to bridge the gap between individual and collective emancipation, present struggle and future anarchist harmony. The portrait's decorative backdrop both explodes and suspends the explosion; when Fénéon wrote that Signac's paintings erased his walls, Signac responded with a constructive metaphor, asking if there were another painting "that would fill a hole in the gallery of my friend Fénéon."65 With his art, Signac strove for a harmonious alternative to terrorist bombs. Which raises the following questions: is Fénéon in control of the backdrop's decorative im/explosion, or is he just an observer to a process set in motion? Does the portrait synthesize into an overall harmony, containing the various forces it brings to bear?

  3. For the most part, the response of commentators was an emphatic no. Georges Lecomte had already remarked in 1890 that "[t]his search for the harmony of lines and colors, for the clear expression, even exaggeration, of the painting's dominant idea, will result in powerful effects of decorative painting, provided that one manages to dissimulate the too apparent procedure."66 Aside from the disjunction between the figure and background, the most criticized aspect of the painting was the emphatic concretization of divisionism and Henry's theories. For viewers ranging from Adolphe Retté to Camille Pissarro (both anarchists, but of a very different stamp) these systems impeded formal synthesis and its corollary, aesthetic emotion. Retté compared neo-impression negatively with the "decorative composition" and "synthesis" of symbolist painters like Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, arguing that Signac's work provided a merely visual pleasure (sensation) absent of ideas and emotions.67 Pissarro condemned the portrait for the absence of both sensation and decorative, aesthetic emotion.68 Signac had viewed explicit decorative pattern as his surest means for achieving both aesthetic and didactic ends, but those same patterns stretched the dialectic to breaking point. Viewers like Lecomte, Retté and Pissarro required of decorative painting a more uniform, synthetic harmony – the kind designated by Fénéon's "authentic Reality."69

  4. Fénéon kept the portrait, but apparently dismissed it late in life.70 And around the time of its creation, he provided subtle dissuasions from theoretical excess. While editing the profile of Signac in which the passage on decorative, authentic Reality appeared, Fénéon railed against Henry's theoretical precisions, complaining to Signac that "We are in a studio, not in a laboratory."71 Then, in the published article, the critic implied that Henry's aesthetic was too crude a tool for the execution or analysis of Signac's paintings.72 The following year, Fénéon wrote that "[Signac] has not enslaved himself to this graceful mathematics; he knows well that a work of art is inextricable."73 Fénéon acknowledged that Signac's study of Henry's aesthetic seemed to have given him more control over "his intuitions of polychromic and linear harmonies," allowing him to reach "the threshold of consciousness."74 But note the terms "inextricable," "intuition," and "threshold": the critic accepts Henry's aesthetic insofar as it helps clarify and communicate the intuitions of artistic genius; if given too central a role, it might evacuate aesthetic instinct and emotion. This balance of instinctive aesthetics and theoretical awareness would certainly have appealed to Signac, and his reaction to Fénéon's 1890 article was unreservedly enthusiastic.75 Yet I do not think that Signac – who at this time included a date in all his paintings' titles and wrote of "the vanity of inalterable processes" – would have fully embraced the transcendence of the "fleeting," "precarious" present entailed by Fénéon's "authentic Reality."76 As I have already indicated, Signac's portrait of Fénéon resisted synthesis even as it proposed it. It resisted synthesis too much for most viewers, resulting in rupture rather than harmony, and incomprehension rather than awareness and understanding.

  5. This reaction, combined with the shock of Seurat's death, must have shaken Signac's confidence in his ability to join reason and aesthetic emotion.77 Henry's aesthetic had also been challenged, and three years later a rather dismissive journal entry suggests that Signac had washed his hands of the psychophysicist.78 Yet, rather than abandoning Henry's ideas, Signac was convinced by critics that his theoretical frameworks (articulated through divisionism and decorative pattern) had to be further sublimated in favor of decorative unity, and that intuition, rather than calculations, needed to dominate.79 The abstract background of the Fénéon portrait had proved to be a problem. Critics read it as the oppressive yoke of an all "too apparent procedure," while anarchists outside of avant-garde circles would have read it as an esoteric exercise devoid of revolutionary import.80 Signac could address both complaints by grounding his work in nature and, to a lesser extent, anarchist iconography, subject matter that would serve as alibis for the deployment of his aesthetic systems.


Decorative Painting in the "Ère des attentats"

  1. In March 1892 a series of bombings struck Paris, ushering in the ère des attentats. In that same period, Signac began an extended voyage along the French coast, beginning in Brittany and culminating in May with his arrival at Saint-Tropez. This idyllic setting provided Signac with both an outsider's view on Parisian turmoil and a concrete example of the individual liberty and mutual aid promised by anarcho-communism.81 This combination inspired two large-scale decorative works, Femmes au puits (Fig. 3) and Au temps d'harmonie (Fig. 4), both of which were harmonious alternatives to anarchist bombs.

  2. If Signac decided to reaffirm his anarchist engagement in the realm of paint, it was because the "great social trial that begins between workers and Capital" seemed to be coming to a head. The following year he wrote to Grave of "the hope of this near future when, finally, for the first time, all individuality will be free."82 Grave's La Révolte had separated rational propaganda and emotional deed, arguing that the latter would have to wait for a "time of revolution."83 But violent terrorism could be interpreted as the stirrings of a future cataclysm. Propaganda seemed on the verge of achieving its own desired transcendence as revolutionary act. As Reclus wrote in La Plume:

Each day could bring catastrophe, and the situation is so tense that in each country we are waiting for a burst, who knows, maybe the first flare of the explosion! […] It's that the feeling of solidarity grows to such an extent that each local shock tends to shake all of Humanity. Thus great days are on the horizon. The evolution is complete, and the revolution will not be long in coming. Is it not accomplishing itself in multiple shocks right before our eyes? […] The day will come when Evolution and Revolution follow immediately upon one another, from desire to reality, idea to realization, merging as one, single phenomenon.84

  1. At such a time, as he was fleshing out the idea for Au temps d'harmonie, Signac was able to see aesthetic and anarchist engagement as the same project.85 The moment when "purely aesthetic emotion" would be accessible to all seemed imminent, and a reasoned artistic propaganda could help bring it closer.86

  2. Signac envisioned artistic interventions that would engender none of the reservations directed at "propaganda by the deed." While Fénéon considered Émile Henry's bombing of the Café Terminus to be the most logical of the attentats, fellow anarchist and littérateur Octave Mirbeau expressed the opinion of many when he charged that it was "inexplicable."87 With the killing of innocent café patrons, Mirbeau feared that Henry had muddied the anarchist "idea" with the gratuitous violence of an "isolated criminal."88 And, echoing Grave's own doubts, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé emphasized the deed's ephemerality as propaganda:

Explosive devices – the detonation of which illuminates parliaments with a summary glow, but that maims, just as regrettably, the curious onlooker – would interest me for the glow they produce, were it not for the brevity of its lesson, which permits the legislator to claim a definitive lack of understanding; but I question the addition of bullets and nails to these devices.89

  1. Signac turned to decorative painting to render, with the force of psychophysical harmony, the collective justice, beauty and happiness that Mirbeau associated with Grave's anarcho-communism.90 He also wanted to make enduring anarchist lessons. Seurat's death inspired in Signac an ongoing reflection on the legacy of his work and of neo-impressionism, a concern that also informed his political engagement.91 When seeking to represent and enact anarchist harmony, Signac looked for permanence in large-scale decorative painting; he also ended his practice of including dates in the exhibition titles of his works.92 These changes oriented Signac's painting more fully toward Fénéon's "authentic Reality," but the artist did not neglect his work's capacity to serve as a timely – as opposed to merely timeless – lesson.93 Rather, he attempted to give future harmony a foothold in the present.

Femmes au puits

  1. Signac's first Saint-Tropez-inspired decoration was painted at the end of that year and exhibited in 1893. Its (undated) title proclaimed Signac's decorative ambitions: Femmes au puits. Décoration pour un panneau dans la pénombre (Women at the Well. Decoration for a panel in half-light), 1892 (Fig. 3).94 The emphasis on a unified surface – a "panel" rather than an accumulation, as in the Fénéon portrait, of individualized "tints" or "angles" – indicated Signac's increased focus on an overall harmony. In this painting, he integrated decorative patterns with the landscape and figures: the most emphatic curves and patterns double as the foreground shadow, the ascending path, the folds of a skirt or the women's arms. In a May 1893 letter to Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), Signac made it clear that he was trying to create an ensemble in which the subject and patterns ("contours") were ultimately transcended by light.95 Luminous intensity was the other preoccupation highlighted by the subtitle, for Femmes au puits was meant to create its own light in a darkened space. Having revisited paintings by Seurat in the "gentle light" of his mother's apartment, Signac would later confirm that neo-impressionist "painting […] does not need a great deal of light since it creates its own."96 Signac intended his painting as a luminous intervention, a vehicle for harmony (the term which came to subsume Henry's aesthetic) independent of its surroundings.