“An art of social engagement - Paris in the Days of Post-Impressionism.”
As cultural institutions begin to open their doors to the public for in vivo experiences, I could think of no exhibit more relevant to the rapid changes we’re seeing throughout society than the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibit: Paris in the Days of Post-Impressionism. This was a period driven by independent artists like Signac, Morisot, and Vallonton, brought together in the collective salon to challenge the status quo, both within art and society, and who lived by the idea that art must be accessible and work towards the common good.
To begin this exploration, I will provide an account of the experience within this “new museum” in the “Covidian” paradigm. First, one must begin by reserving their preferred time at the museum via the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ online platform and purchasing a ticket in advance. Be aware that time slots sell out quickly, so it’s advisable to book in advance. When you arrive at the museum for your reserved time, you will be prompted to wait in a socially distanced queue, an experience now lived by many in various other social contexts. After a quick hand sanitization and a verification of your entry pass, the exhibit begins at a quite calm and distanced pace. Although masks are not mandatory, they are strongly suggested and the museum has a playful campaign to encourage you, as can be seen below.
When walking through the exhibit, surrounded by viewers with masks, I am struck by how the experience almost parallels many a Susan Sontag essay exploring the viewer’s gaze, but here we miss half the reaction of the viewer in the shroud of the mask. Despite the extra steps, the whole experience was seamless, where you’re almost lifted out of the worries of today back to Paris in the Belle Époque.
The Salon des Indépendants was a community for artists over the course of post-Impressionist history to present works that sought to challenge artistic conventions such as technique and colour, as well as challenge oppressive governments and to establish a harmonious relationship between society and the individual through inclusive humanitarianism. As said by Paul Signac: “When the society we dream of exists, when rid of the exploiters who work him silly, the labourer will have the time to think and to educate himself, he will appreciate all the various qualities of the work of art.” Signac’s colour theory almost parallels this philosophy, where he was unafraid to mix bold colours on a canvas. He believed that greater beauty was achieved when juxtaposing pure colour pigments (those colours derived from the prism) on a canvas separately yet balanced, so that from a distance the colours blend to the viewer, but up close each coloured point stands out distinctly. To the artist, an equilibrium is reached on the canvas because each colour is equal and balanced to those surrounding it, no one colour can exploit another. As a society, we have a duty to maintain our cultural institutions and ensure accessibility to all who seek to educate themselves and reflect on the “various qualities of the work of art”. Art still holds the power to challenge society and warn of our history. As this global pandemic forces us to reflect on how our society functions, we can turn towards art to imagine unrealized worlds.
Society is undoubtedly undergoing major shifts, and I would invite you, the viewer, to step back and explore how those from the past have been able to overcome humankind’s greatest challenges. Whether it’s through the earlier days of the Salon des Indépendants exploring pointillism, or its later days through dadaism, we are all independent actors capable of change and enlightenment.