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Earth & fire

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John Pilger's Great Eyewitness Photographers

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Paul Signac: Travels in France

The other story of British abstract art

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Picasso as political icon

An art world Schindler

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Paul Signac: Travels in France

Paul Signac is best known for his association with Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat. Together they invented the "pointillist" style, using tiny dots of contrasting colours to build up images, in an attempt to take Impressionism into a new direction. This technique became known as "Neo-Impressionism".

Seurat died tragically young in 1891, but Signac lived until 1935. His drawings and watercolours currently on view at the Courtauld Institute are a fascinating account of an artistic journey over nearly half a century and from one end of France to the other - from the northern ports down to Marseille and the Riviera.

Paul Signac: Saint-Tropez 1920
Pen & wash
33 x 43 cm

 

Paul Signac: Barfleur 1931 Pencil & watercolour
30 x 44 cm
ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2001

We see Signac trying out different ways of approaching a subject. And we can mentally place them in relation to the work by other artists over the near half-century between 1890 and 1934, the date of the last work in the show. Signac's views of Saint Tropez , for example, from the turn of the last century simply flow. He achieves in watercolour a similar effect as Monet in his oils of the same period.

We are not accustomed to associating the bright colours of Neo-Impressionism with watercolours and drawings, so this exhibition is a unique chance to see the ideas of the movement in a different medium. His watercolour sea and landscapes have a liveliness of touch which links him up with the Fauve (wild) movement, which marked a turn from "impression" to "expression". A pencil and watercolour drawing from around 1909 at first seems an "impressionist" record of the renowned Salute church in Venice. But its touching inscription -"this poor little prayer to our God Turner", reveals that Signac copied it from a Turner in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Signac has a signature curly touch not only in his landscapes, but also in delightfully rococo still-life paintings of peppers and aubergines.

A small but informative booklet by John House (on sale at the exhibition) outlines Signac's political commitment to left-wing politics. One drawing in particular shows the political beliefs which the artist held dear.

Paul Signac: For the Vultures
(The Biribi Drawing) 1910
Pencil & india ink
28 x 36 cm

"For the Vultures" is a stark image of a soldier's body preyed upon by a vulture. It was his protest against the notorious murder of a young soldier by the "Biribi" military police establishment in the French colony of Algeria in 1909. It was published in a special edition of the anarchist weekly, Les Temps nouveaux. Signac's pen and ink drawing evokes the event with a stark sense of horror, as the young man's hands clutch at the ground, a yawning gap between him and the distant town. Algiers is delicately sketched with fine lines and dots, palm trees echoing the shapes of the ambiguous winged shapes hovering above.

Signac argued that the "pure aesthetes, revolutionaries by temperament, leaving the beaten track, paint what they see, as they themselves experience it, and very often unconsciously, deliver a solid blow of the pickaxe to the old social edifice."

Until 19 August at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2
www.courtauld.ac.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm. Fridays from 27 July to 9pm.
Admission 4/3. Free under 18s, fulltime UK students and unwaged. Free for all Monday 10am-2pm. Admission is for permanent collection (which has Renoir's famous La Loge and Manet's Bar aux Folies Bergeres) and includes the Signac display.