WHEN Georges Seurat unveiled his painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in Paris in 1886, he shocked the Parisian art scene.
Instead of mixing colours on the palette or canvas, Seurat had, with precision, placed lozenges of block colours side by side on the canvas. Known as pointillism, the idea was to make colours more vibrant as they hit the viewer's eye.
''What he was on about was the notion that by applying individual dabs of colour side by side, because they bounce off each other, that creates light when it hits our retina,'' explains National Gallery of Victoria senior curator Ted Gott.
This highly scientific method, which drew on new colour and optical theories of the time, formed the technical basis of neo-Impressionism, the subject of a new exhibition, Radiance, which opens at the NGV today.
''[Seurat] also hoped that another thing would happen, which he called the optical mix,'' Dr Gott says. ''He hoped that when you stood far enough back from the painting, the tiny lozenges of colour would create a third colour in the viewer's eye. That doesn't always work, but what always does work is this incredible luminosity.''
Seurat died suddenly from diphtheria at 31, so his friend and artist Paul Signac became the movement's leader and champion, encouraging other artists to work in the style. Notable were Maximilien Luce, Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe and, in the later stages of the movement, Henri Matisse, who adopted the style while spending a summer with Signac in Saint-Tropez.
The neo-Impressionists were also not interested in using naturalistic colours, or in creating three-dimensional depth.
''By applying their dabs of colour side by side they realised that they were creating an obvious two-dimensional surface, and they found that to be very modern,'' Dr Gott says. ''So what they're inviting us to do is not to pretend that we're looking at reality, but to appreciate painting on a different level, to appreciate the skill of the artist in creating the composition and applying the individual dabs of colour in such a scientific way.''
While the exhibition does not feature Seurat's La Grande Jatte, there are other Seurat works on display, including Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp and The Seine at Courbevoie. Works by Luce and van Rysselberghe are also in the exhibition.
Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists runs from today to March 17 at NGV International.
The story Getting to the point: lozenges of colour do wonders for viewer's outlook first appeared on The Age.