Georges Seurat Exhibit
“Pierrot and Colombine,” conté crayon on paper, from around 1887-88.
It is with pure pleasure that I post the following exhibition out of the pages of the NY Times. The Museum of Modern Art’s elegantly plain exhibition of Georges Seurat’s drawings (running through to January, 2008) begins with an unexpectedly extraordinary moment of computerized art viewing. Seurat’s four surviving notebooks have been converted to electronic versions that — with a touch of a finger — visitors can flip through, page by digital page, from cover to dog-eared cover. (The real notebooks can also be seen under glass nearby.)
Facsimiles they may be, but they instantly communicate the show’s intent, which is to clarify the way the silent, classical remove of Seurat’s impeccable, stylized paintings was distilled from an active, socially aware engagement with the world that registered most fully in his drawings. The painter Bridget Riley claims Seurat’s drawings as among “the great mysteries and delights of being alive.” Given the exquisitely honed evidence at MOMA, who could argue with her?
Seurat’s “Eden Concert,” conté crayon, gouache, chalk and ink on paper, around 1886-87, at the Museum of Modern Art.
The sketchbooks show us Seurat on the move, roaming late 19th-century Paris and its more ragged outskirts, noting life in all its aspects. If you want to understand how Seurat’s dark, silhouetted figures convey such an accurate sense of body language, consult these facsimiles. People rush across the pages, as if the whole town were out on an errand. They work hard: Women scrub floors, men wield scythes or break stones for Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards. But they also come to rest, sometimes at cafes or on park benches, sometimes sprawled on the ground, exhausted from backbreaking labor or possibly just passed out drunk.
The books present various farm animals (especially cows), glimpses of public statues and detailed renderings of plants and leaves. This intimate sense of Seurat provides a galvanizing prelude to this great show’s 116 drawings, 10 oil studies on wood and four smallish paintings. The electronic sketchbooks spell out one of art history’s more remarkable growth spurts, which is in turn summarized by what you can see of the actual books. The earliest is open to a cafe interior so charmingly stiff that you expect Madeline and her cohort — the 12 little girls in two straight lines — to file past its striped awning. “Sketchbook IV” shows three deft indications of reclining men. Two in particular are so steeply and perfectly foreshortened, starting with the soles of their shoes, that it takes a minute to recognize them.
The quickness and the command of form, human and otherwise, that emerges from the sketchbooks dazzle in part because so little is known about Seurat. He died in diphtheria in 1891, after barely a decade of mature work. He was only 31. Even artists as famously transient as Raphael, Caravaggio and van Gogh made it to their late 30s. One who died younger is worth noting here: Masaccio, the 15th-century Florentine master credited with nailing down the vanishing point of one-point perspective, thus getting the High Renaissance rolling. Western painting’s ensuing exploration of pictorial space lasted more than three centuries, and Seurat’s art stands as one of its conclusions.
Cubism is usually heralded for dismantling one-point perspective altogether with tools provided by Cézanne. But Seurat gave the vanishing point its last gasp of perfection and innovation, bowing to the past and also providing for a future that would take more than 50 years to arrive. He crisply delineated the Renaissance’s illusionistic window and then filled it with palpable granules of atmosphere, the tiny dots of color of Pointillism. This was the style he spearheaded in the early 1880s, based on color theories that he started absorbing when he was around 17. (At the time Seurat, the Paris-born son of a former bailiff comfortably well off on real estate speculation, was studying at the École Municipale de Sculpture et de Dessin in Paris. By 20 he had survived the rigors of the École des Beaux-Arts, where students drew living bodies only after thoroughly mastering renderings of plaster, faux-antique ones.)
But as this exhibition emphasizes, Seurat first formulated his ideas about color and atmosphere on paper, in drawing, working in black and white. Applying his beloved black conté crayon to the specially textured Michallet paper that he almost always used, he created an impressive tonal range of velvety blacks, gossamer veils, crazy all-over scribbles, porous grids, methodical cross hatchings and uncrossed hatchings.
He was unusual among 19th-century artists in that he drew without color while treating paper like canvas, as a surface to be covered completely with a tangible, malleable substance. He gave the drawing a new substantiality and granted figures and ground, objects and space almost equal weight. His enigmatic balances of dense and hollow, flat and deep, and dark and light define tensions that play out in the work of modern artists beginning with Brancusi, Mondrian and Jean Arp.
There is another article recently published on this fabulous exhibit that I wish to draw readers attention to, taken from the pages of The New York Observer entitled “Another Side of Seurat.” Provocatively written, it reveals the “ghostly romance” Seurat discovered when he put his palette aside.