Bombs, beauty and painters of utopian anarchy
From The Australian
Camille Pissaro’s Eragny sur Epte (Flock of sheep) (1888), describes a bucolic existence that artists and writers of the time thought compatible with anarchist politics. Source: Supplied
FROM a modern perspective, the word anarchy implies subversion, lawlessness, chaos and violence. Neo-impressionist artists embraced anarchy from the opposite perspective: as an ideology that stood for individual liberty, collective sustainability and the idyllic union of labour and industry with nature.
The two leading theorists of anarchy whose writings influenced the neo-impressionists, Pyotr Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus, were geographers who wrote of the close links between correct cultivation of the land and ideal anarchist (or liberated) communal living, free from the restraints of centralised government.
Recognising that their cause needed visual representation, anarchist publishers such as Jean Grave, editor of La Revolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times), regularly asked Maximilien Luce and others to contribute illustrations to his journals, gratis. In 1891 Paul Signac published the essay “Impressionnistes et revolutionnaires” in La Revolte, in which he argued that the neo-impressionist’s unique vision of the world supported anarchy by struggling against convention and challenging the prevailing social order. Camille Pissarro, in fact, twice paid Les Temps nouveaux’s debts. Unsurprisingly, then, visual synergies with the aspirations of anarchism are not hard to find in neo-impressionist paintings.
“The very technique that the neo-impressionists employed,” wrote historian DD Egbert, “with its strongly accentuated individual brushstrokes that are brought together in harmony to form the picture as a whole, paralleled the individualistic yet communal spirit of communist-anarchism.”
In 1886, some years before his move to the south of France, Signac vacationed at Les Andelys, in Normandy, and found a self-sustaining regional community that provided numerous motifs for his painting. Les Andelys, 1897, a colour lithograph reprising his memory of this town, offers an idyllic view of local women at one with nature, washing linen in the Seine. Pissarro’s Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte, 1888, and Delafolie Brickworks at Eragny, 1886, similarly depict dignified rural labour – sheep herding and modest brickmaking, respectively – in the small village of Eragny-sur-Epte in Picardy, where Pissarro had set up house in 1884. The Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe’s Calf Mill in Knokke (Windmill in Flanders), 1894, and Canal in Flanders, gloomy weather, 1894, also offer witness to humanity’s use of land for sustainable benefit.
Henri-Edmond Cross’s The farm, evening, 1893, blends the silhouetting of Japanese prints and the arabesque curves of art nouveau into a decorative vision of rural harmony. Cross’s peasant maiden – with basket perched on her shoulders, at peace with her domain – is a perfect leitmotif of anarchist bliss. Even Haystacks, 1889, by Belgian Willy Finch, who worked in the neo-impressionist mode for only a few years, can be read, as Robyn Roslak has shown, as echoing Kropotkin’s emphasis on the benefits flowing from properly managed land and agricultural production.
Another Belgian painter, George Morren, the son of a wealthy grain merchant from Antwerp, also embraced neo-impressionism briefly, between 1890 and 1892. Certain works by Morren from this period reflect a genuine empathy for the working classes of his home city, married to a close observation of atmospheric and temporal specifics inspired by impressionism.
The portraits of Parisian artisans that Luce painted in the late 1880s and early 1890s – for example, Coffee, 1892 – invited contemporary audiences to reflect on the precarious position of these skilled craftsmen as their livelihood was challenged by the rise of mechanised production and the department store. One of his subjects, the chessboard maker Eugene Baillet, was an old friend of Grave’s, as well as co-leader of the anarchist group of the 14th arrondissement. Luce himself started out as an artisan, making wood-engravings and working for a business that folded in the face of new printing technologies in 1883. In 1895 Luce visited the Borinage area of Belgium, a coalmining district filled with collieries and blast furnaces. Astonished by the beauty of these fiery premises when seen at night, and appreciative of the manner in which they dwarfed the workers who manned them (who had been involved in bitter confrontations with the authorities during labour strikes in the late 1880s), Luce devoted numerous compositions to the Borinage’s heavy industry, including his colour lithograph Charleroi factories or blast-furnaces, 1898. This was also the subject of the cover design Luce prepared for Grave’s 1898 pamphlet, Le Machinisme (Mechanisation), which discussed how machines both increased production to the detriment of the workers – who could not afford to consume the new products – and, because of the relative ease with which workers could be trained to use new machinery, removed traditional means of learning.
While anarchism sought to peacefully replace state control of society with a new, decentralised egalitarian order, an ideal embodied in the vision of pastoral, self-sufficient and cash-free collectives, extremists within the movement inevitably turned to violence. At the 1880 Workers’ Congress in Le Havre, Grave proclaimed that money would be better spent on dynamiting politicians than electing them. In 1886 extremists took him literally by attacking the Paris Stock Exchange with acid and setting fire to the mayor’s residence.
In July 1892 the anarchist Ravachol was publicly guillotined for his part in a number of bombings in the capital. Avenging Ravachol, fellow-anarchist Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies, only to be beheaded in February 1894. Vaillant was avenged in turn by Emile Henry, who bombed the Cafe Terminus. At his beheading, Henry, a friend of the neo-impressionist writer Felix Feneon, yelled “Long live anarchy!” The French President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in June 1894 by another anarchist, set on avenging Vaillant and Henry.
Pissarro, who was in Belgium at the time, wrote to his son Lucien about “the assassination of president Carnot, which is going to greatly complicate matters in France. Who knows how it will end? The poor painters are certainly going to feel the heat”. His words were prophetic.
Grave, Luce and Feneon were all arrested and charged with complicity in anarchist terrorism. After intense interrogation and 42 days’ imprisonment, Luce was eventually released. Grave and Feneon were among those tried and subsequently acquitted for lack of evidence. Feneon, who planted a bomb in the elegant Foyot restaurant in April 1894 (a terrorist act he was never linked to by the police), was soon boasting of how “the anarchist attacks have provided much better propaganda than 20 years of Reclus’s and Kropotkin’s brochures”.
Away from this violence, working in the balmy south of France, Signac and Cross explored a different vision of world peace from an anarchist perspective. As Cross wrote to Signac: “Until now, the pictures dealing with the theme of anarchy have always depicted revolt either directly or indirectly, through scenes of poignant misery. Let us imagine instead the dreamed-of age of happiness and well-being and let us show the actions of men, their play and their work in this era of general harmony.”
Paintings such as Cross’s Mediterranean shores, 1895, depicting women relaxing and men contentedly working in a lush, warm seaside setting, perfectly embody Reclus’s vision of Mediterranean France as an anarchist paradise of self-sufficient communities.
To some extent, the painting also reflects Nietzsche’s ideas of a liberating paganism, which Cross envisaged would accompany the triumph of anarchism, contributing to a new union with nature. Cross told Signac: “I want to paint the happiness and the lucky citizens of some centuries hence, when pure anarchy has been achieved.”
This is an edited extract from Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists, published by NGV Publications. The associated exhibition is at the National Gallery of Victoria from November 16 to March 17.