Imagination and Reality or Chromoluminarism: Inspired by Neo-Impressionsim

Acrylic on canvas

In 1886, art critic Félix Fénéon coined the term Neo-Impressionism. The movement began with Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”. Seurat used a painting technique called “divisionism” or “Chromoluminarism”: instead of mixing colors, Seurat placed colorful dots next to each other so that color was mixed by our eyes and perspectives.

Many, many years later I entered The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. in late 2014. Within the building, I first interacted with Neo-Impressionism. My reaction to the dots and color, shadow and light was perhaps nostalgic. When I was very young Impressionism caught my interest because it conveyed a familiar world and mystery and complexity I could not quite comprehend.

Only when I grew a bit older, when I stood there within the “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities” exhibit did I begin to understand just why the Impressionist movements have moved me so much.

Photograph of me from “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities” exhibit

Neo-Impressionism seems to capture the senses of both the work and the viewer. A culmination of dots, of colors, interact to create a familiar scene or person or feeling. Up close, I could only focus on the impressions the painting gave me, impressions that awoke my imagination. In the exhibition catalogue “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities”, contributor Paul Smith writes that,

“Neo-Impressionism is liable to the same representational incoherence that afflicted Impressionism, in which an over reliance on color weakened the distinction between figure and ground and left the painting open to whatever the spectator projected to it.”

What this criticism describes is exactly what drew me to Impressionism in the first place: Impressionist paintings seem to acknowledge the real world and our imaginations simultaneously. Within the paint, the familiar emerged alongside my imagination and made me feel as if I were interacting with the art. Remembering this feeling reminds me of what poet Audre Lorde wrote in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”, 

“there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt”.  

Not long after I visited The Phillips Collection, I read a story that reminded me of the art I had just experienced. In Ray Bradbury’s short story “Sound of Thunder”, a person traveling to the past to hunt dinosaurs that are nearing extinction, accidentally steps on a butterfly and comes back to a different future. In the story, something as small as the death of the butterfly changed history. Neo-Impressionism is similar, each dot of color is like the butterfly: without a smudge of black a face is not yet complete, with a touch of yellow an ocean’s movement is captured. 

What I began to comprehend five years ago, when I stood in The Phillip’s Collection, is that we are similar to Neo-Impressionism, each tiny element of our lives make us who we are. Up close a person is just a collection of atoms and emotions, skin and scars, hair and circumstances. Alone these elements are not “a human” but step back and you find the person, much like a painting, who is all the more fascinating once you’ve seen them up close.

Day 341 close up

341 days done, 24 to go.