Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit “Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh: Ways of Pointillism,” a remarkable exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna (open through 8 January 2017). It was an eye-opening show on a couple of levels.
First, it disabused me of a vague notion I had carried around for decades that modern painting originates with Impressionism–that, in other words, twentieth-century visual art descended more or less in a direct line from Monet, Renoir, and company. The Albertina show argues forcefully and persuasively that we should look rather to Pointillism, which arose in direct opposition to Impressionism, as the seminal moment. It was Pointillism that finally liberated the painted image from any obligation to represent the external object as it appeared to the painter. Its aesthetic was governed instead by an autonomous logic that governed the interrelationships between dots of different colors arranged across the surface of the canvas. Moreover, as the impressive range of paintings assembled in the show demonstrates, virtually every major figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western painting went through a Pointillist phase: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and more.
Second, it suggested that the bifurcation in post-1960s Japanimation styles between full animation (represented most famously by Miyazaki Hayao) and limited animation (e.g. Tezuka Osamu’s work for television) was a rehashing of a debate that happened in oil painting nearly a century earlier. I have in mind here the argument Thomas LaMarre makes in his brilliant 2009 book, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. According to LaMarre, full animation attempts to direct attention away from the gaps between the different planes of the animated image by centering itself on the movements of characters, drawn in loving detail against lush backgrounds. This technique generates a panoramic perspective that provides the illusion of a certain, albeit ambiguous, sense of depth. Limited animation, on the other hand, collapses the different planes of the animated image into a single flat surface to produce an effect that LaMarre calls “superplanarity”: all movement and energy now diffuse across the horizontal surface of the image rather than simulating some sort of depth.
According to the Albertina exhibit’s explanation, Pointillism aimed at something similar. Countless dots are arranged in non-hierarchical order across the surface of the canvas, each carrying an equal value. Through the contrasts and harmonies of different colors situated in relation to one another, a visual energy is unleashed across the flat plane of the image. The painting comes alive in the eye of the viewer with a kind of luminous oscillation that vibrates between the dots spread across its flat surface.
LaMarre critiques previous theorists who have tried to link the ‘superflat’ aesthetic of limited animation to Edo period visual art, usually assuming an essentialist West vs. Japan binary to link Japanimation to a seemingly ahistorical national aesthetic. The Albertina exhibit suggests that even within the ‘Western’ canon of painting, a similar conflict has long been at work. In their gorgeous works from the 1880s and 90s, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac produced a visual logic that Tezuka Osamu would have appreciated.