If all had gone according to plan, in March the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts would have unveiled a major exhibition of post-Impressionist art organized by one of its rising stars, curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais. This, however, is 2020, the year when nothing goes according to plan.
First, the pandemic closed the museum and made the spring date an impossibility. Then, by the time the museum reopened in June and rushed to install the show for a July launch, its administration was in turmoil as general director Nathalie Bondil fought Ms. Desmarais’s appointment as her deputy. The exhibition, Paris in the Days of Post-Impressionism: Signac and the Indépendants, hadn’t been open two weeks when the MMFA board of directors fired Ms. Bondil, citing the deteriorating workplace environment that Ms. Desmarais’s new job had been created to address. Ms. Bondil, who has fought back in the press, is suing the board for defamation.
It’s tempting to see some of the museum’s power struggles playing out in this massive show of 500 often-unrelated pieces by greatly varying artists who were working in Paris from 1884 to 1914. It was Ms. Bondil’s connections to their European owner (both acknowledge their long association in the catalogue) that made the show happen; it was the French art historian Gilles Genty and Ms. Desmarais who wrestled them into an exhibition. It can’t have been an easy assignment.
The exhibition’s unifying theme is that the artists all showed at the Salon des Indépendants founded by the pointillist painter Paul Signac in 1884. But since that organization repudiated juries and welcomed all members, there is no stylistic thread here, and the quality varies. Many of these works – the best of Signac’s experiments in colour, Berthe Morisot’s striking portrait of a young violinist, a fabulous collection of popular posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and other graphic artists – are classics. Others are forgettable, cloying pastel landscapes or minor prints by major names.
In truth, what unites the artworks is their ownership. They all belong to the same collector, which makes it particularly odd that this person is never identified. Ms. Bondil has plumbed this connection before, securing important loans for previous shows devoted to Marc Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Nabis painter Maurice Denis and the German-American Expressionist Lyonel Feininger. The unnamed collector praises Ms. Bondil highly in the show’s catalogue and text panels, but there is a distinct impression that the museum is reaching this time – not for art, because this collection is large – but for focused themes. Every donor has the right to remain anonymous, but how can this show explain a collection if it can’t name the person whose vision and history it represents?
Instead, the show offers the Indépendants' spirit as a narrative, which is initially convincing but threadbare by the time one reaches the final rooms of a large (and often gorgeous) installation in the museum’s long suite of temporary exhibition galleries.
After a smattering of Impressionist works, including one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, the exhibition dives into Signac. As a pointillist, he was less well-known than Georges Seurat (who is barely represented here), but he was the political philosopher of the school, turning the colour theory that so fascinated Seurat into social theory. An anarchist, he argued not only that the viewer’s eye would blend the colours the artist had dotted on the canvas, but also that harmony could be created by juxtaposing contrasting colours just as different elements in society might live together in peace.
Great in theory, and in practice, his best landscapes – Bow of the Boat, Opus 176; The Beacons at Saint-Briac, Opus 210 – are irresistible as they provocatively mix the earthy and the ethereal. (Stylistically, his work seems to cry out for more comparisons with Paul Cézanne’s experiments with blocks of colour, but unfortunately the collection includes only two Cézanne prints.)
On the other hand, in lesser examples, the fractured and dotted effects can look merely fussy, while the politics sometimes associated with the movement seems both naive and tortured. The silliest work in this show is Steelworks, a painting that prettifies labour rather than glorifying it, executed by Signac’s colleague Maximilien Luce (also an anarchist). The flames and smoke of the blast furnace form a pleasing pattern of blues and reds while several of the steelworkers lounge as if in Arcadia – despite what would be, in reality, searing heat.
A whole show devoted to the radical idealism of the Indépendants might prove instructive – for good or for ill. And a whole show, instead of a single vibrant room, could certainly be fashioned from those classic posters of Paris bars, cabarets and circuses. Oh, but wait, the MMFA did that already with the Toulouse-Lautrec show back in 2016.
And so Ms. Desmarais and Mr. Genty plod on, carrying out Ms. Bondil’s scheme and moving from the pointillists to the symbolists. There, the exhibition takes a jolting right turn as it shifts from an outward-looking and social movement that concentrated on landscapes and portraits of ordinary people to one that looked inward to dreams and the psyche.
There’s a lot of excellent work here, too, including a fine selection of portraits and allegorical female figures by Denis, but the crowded context doesn’t give it much space to shine. For example, the display includes several entire albums of Odilon Redon’s idiosyncratic prints relating to dreams and sleep. These small-scale black-and-white images of smiling orbs, disembodied heads and wispy night visitors require close viewing from committed gallery-goers not overawed or just plain exhausted by the numerous larger and more approachable canvases in previous rooms.
By the time the persistent make it to a small gallery of prints by Pablo Picasso, they may be skeptical of this venture: Are these Picasso etchings and drypoint engravings merely what the collector could afford or had access to? Surely if we are going to consider the innovations wrought by cubism in the context of the independent spirit, we also need to see more than a small handful of etchings by Georges Braque.
There is lots to admire in this exhibition, and it will reward the patient and the diligent with a broad survey of the secondary movements and lesser-known artists of the post-Impressionist years. Sometimes they are discoveries, and sometimes you understand why they aren’t on the A-list. Certainly, the Signac show does not contradict those who have accused Ms. Bondil’s MMFA of relying too heavily on elaborately staged blockbusters; it’s an exhibition that appears to be powered by the need for a big show rather than some pressing curatorial argument.
The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.