SEURAT: Quest For The Redemption Of MATTER

Studies of Georges Seurat have usually focused on the subject matter; but there can be little doubt that the painter himself nailed his flag firmly to the mast of technical innovation. Technique was, as he wrote to his friend, the critic Felix Féneon, “the soul and the body of the art.” And he complained that it was a mistake to see poetry in his work, which was simply a matter of method. Should we take Seurat’s cheery summer scenes for granted? You may never do so again….

"Emotionally, too, Seurat lives on the edge. Monet faces up to modernity well enough, more indeed than early Modernists. He also finds joy in it. His almost abstract but also deadly accurate London skies need the fog of the industrial revolution to exist. His train station, with clouds of smoke billowing up to the glass and steel enclosure, conveys excitement. Seurat's darting Conté crayon accepts the ugliness of soot, freight yards, and ragpickers. He updates themes like Courbet's stone breakers and Millet's reapers, but without ennobling them."

“Seurat’s dots are a refined device which belongs to art as much as to sensation – the visual world is not perceived as a mosaic of colored points, but this artificial micro-pattern serves the painter as a means of order portioning and nuancing sensation beyond the familiar qualities of the objects that the colors evoke. Here one recalls Rimbaud’s avowal in his Alchemy of the Word: “I regulated the form and the movement of each consonant,” which was to inspire in the poets of Seurat’s generation a similar search of the smallest units of poetic effect.

“Seurat’s dots may be seen as a kind of collage. They create a hollow space within the frame, often a vast depth; but they compel us also to see the picture as a finely structured surface made up of an infinite number of superposed units attached to the canvas. When painters in our century had ceased to concern themselves with the rendering of sensations – a profoundly interesting content for art – they were charmed by Seurat’s inimitable dots and introduced them into their freer painting as a motif, usually among opposed elements of structure and surface. In doing so, they transformed Seurat’s dots – one can’t mistake theirs for his – but they also paid homage to Seurat.”( Schapiro )

"...something ambivalent, too, in Seurat's point of view. He can seem not simply formal but ice cold. I cannot think of a less sexy portrayal of a woman's waist than Seurat's profiles. He rarely makes eye contact, even with his own family. At the same time, he has more intimacy with his subjects than others of his time. He allows grown-ups to toil and children to suffer."

…Clearly Seurat must be considered as an artist deeply preoccupied with the modernization and rationalization of perception and aesthetic response, in the same way that this could be said of figures as diverse as, for example, Sergei Eisenstein and Arnold Schoenberg. André Chastel said that Seurat’s method was a form of research into archetypal forms- lines, colors, direction- which answered to a double and deliberately componded ambition at once archaic regression and scientific reduction.

The island of La Grande Jatte- literally, “the big bowl” is a flat, mile long cigar in a loop of the Seine on the northwestern edge of Paris, a few hundred yards upstream from the community of  Asnieres. In the 1880′s , as the horizon of “Un Baignade” shows, the whole district was becoming what it is today: very unidyllic, public housing and low income sector. A few green stretches remained, however; the water was still fir for bathing; barge traffic had not yet made amateur boating hazardous. At Asnieres there were sailing and rowing establishments, and the island was a popular weekend summer resort, equipped with dance halls, restaurants, cafés, and grassy promenades.

Schapiro:. . . He is the first modern painter who expressed in the basic fabric and forms of his art an appreciation of the beauty of modern techniques. In Pissarro’s and Monet’s paintings of related themes, a haze of atmosphere and smoke veils the structure of the boats and the bridges, and the simple lines of the engineers’ forms are lost in the picturesqueness of irregular masses and patches of color. Seurat, in his sympathetic vision of the mechanical in the constructed environment, is a forerunner of an important current in the architecture and painting of the twentieth century.

On warm Sundays, according to memoirs of the period, the area smelled of industrial smoke, heavy perfume, and fish stew and echoed to cheap pianos , barrel organs, and the mock insults traditional among rivermen. But middle class Parisians liked to drive out for a stroll or a sedate picnic, and men of fashion sometimes made an appearance.

…The painter’s operations set up a meeting point between an ancient hieratic art and the rationalized discipline of the future. this affiliation is important because it relocates the problem of Seurat into the midst of the most disturbing questions about modernity and rationalization; the same cultural crisis out of which national socialism emerged. In hinting at a culturally reactionary component of Seurat’s project, it challenges those accounts that have dutifully and reductively identified his interest in science as inevitably allied with progressive political and social positions. …

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Ortman:Abstraction (After Les Poseuses), acrylic on canvas, 183 x 244 cm (72 x 96 in), 1983

One can imagine the gaiety Renoir might have seen in such subject matter, as one can imagine the bloom he moght have seen in the flesh of “Les Poseuses” . But the Seurat who reached artistic maturity in “La Grande Jatte” had none of Renoir’s hedonism. For months, day after day, he labored on the island, so conscientiously that he refused to stop for lunch and asked his friends to cut the grass when it grew to an improper height. Then he assembled his notes during long winter nights in his Monmartre studio. He applied his method.

Schapiro: In painting the Eiffel Tower in 1889, even before it was completed, Seurat took a stand on an object of intense dispute among artists of the time. The enemies of the Tower included writers like Huysmans who saw in it only the Notre Dame de la Brocante – a vulgar assertion of the power of industry and trade. For Seurat the tower was a congenial work of art of which he had anticipated the forms in his own painting. Its clean, graceful silhouette has an unmistakable affinity with the lines of the trombonist in his Side Show and the central nude of the Models. Besides, the construction of this immense monument out of small exposed parts, each designed for its place, and forming together out of the visible criss-cross and multiplicity of elements a single airy whole of striking simplicity and elegance of shape, was not unlike his own art with its summation of innumerable tiny units into a large clear form which retained the aspect of immaterial lightness evident in the smaller parts. In its original state the Tower was closer to Seurat’s art than it is today; for the iron structure was coated with several shades of iridescent enamel paint – the poet Tailhade called it the “speculum-Eiffel.” If the identity of the painter of Seurat’s pictures were unknown, we would call him appropriately the Master of the Eiffel Tower.

…It is a phenomenon with a double face, of past and future, probably are always progressive and regressive in one. So it is not just that Seurat aligned himself with the scientific research of his  own time; It was a first attempt to rationally produce aura. But to even attempt the creation of this luminous effect means bringing into the work the form of rationality that eradicated aura in the first place. It is then no accident that his last major paintings are experiments in simulating different artificial forms of illumination, and that he situates both artist and spectator in a world bereft of “natural” white light, where the opposition of day and night is dissolved. …

Perhaps the resulting message of loneliness and dehumanization was predictable. The method was partly the man himself, a revolutionary in the cause of tonal values and geometry, but oddly deficient in openness and love. It was also a scientific method, in spirit at least, and as such it fostered a tendency to objectify everything and to indulge in what would be later termed reductionism.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima---"Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable." wrote Baudelaire. The paintings of Seurat offered the modern practical synthesis between the "fleeting" and the "eternal", between the contingent forms of modern experience and its artistic expression as a prospective and enduring vision across time, that is, as a kind of "transhistorical" expression of historical experience. For Seurat the function of the work of art is to preserve as artistic form the memory of the actual, of living time, at the same time that it provides the seed of future artistic developments. In the works of Seurat the basic elements of the temporal flux of perception that the analysis of visual experience by the impressionists revealed are systematized into a method of color analysis and of synthetic formal expression. In his paintings the elementary particles of color and their exchanges provide the energy for the construction of large linear rhythms and imposing stable forms. The result is the monumental representation of modernity. Of which the heroic and the prospective is one half, the other being a type of reification of time and of historical experience and structures.---

…To characterize Seurat as representative of a modernizing quantitative color theory deriving from Chevreul, supposedly dominant in France, is to miss how the methodical program of his technique is an attempt to conceal the parallel, even if hopeless, ambition of an alchemical transubstantiation of overcoming the opacity and materiality of pigment to attain that archaic goal of what Stephen Toulin terms “the redemption of matter”…

Finally, it was a classical method, a way of organizing landscapes, people, dogs, monkeys, hats and parasols as structural and decorative elements. All this, applied to the Horatii and the Curatii,might have yelded a familiar message about Roman fortitude. Applied coldly and inconguously to an impressionist genre subject, it yielded, as the “boulevardiers” at the Maison Dorée may have noticed, a deflating comment on nineteenth-century society.

George Earl Ortman:Seurat's painting is extraordinary—perfect composition and proportions, spatial tension and interesting color experiments. I remember talking with Stanley Hayter about Seurat. Hayter said that if you looked closely you'd realize how Seurat simplified his forms and composition. He designed his pictures with shapes so that, if read as flat, you would have an abstract painting. This was very advanced thinking about the picture plane in 1886.

…One of the big questions about Seurat’s work is the extent to which forms of synthesis- optical mixture- produce qualitative change. The purely additive and accumulative functions of industrialized procedures, which insinuate the most basic form of modern social reproduction into the work, are haunted by the survival of what Ernest Bloch calls ” a pre-bourgeois, non-qualitative connection to nature,” for which color did not exist as an autonomous experience or as a separate and specialized science….( Crary )

Ortman:I used the geometry in the pose of the central figure to make three paintings and a construction, all with the same composition, but different colors. I used red to reflect passion, blue spiritual search, yellow innocence and green the modern woman.

“With all its air of simplicity and stylization, Seurat’s art is extremely complex. He painted large canvases not to assert himself nor to insist on the power of a single idea, but to develop an image emulating the fullness of nature. One can enjoy in the Grande Jatte many pictures each of which is a world in itself; every segment contains surprising inventions in the large shapes and the small, in the grouping and linking of parts, down to the patterning of the dots. The richness of Seurat lies not only in the variety of forms, but in the unexpected range of qualities and content within the same work: from the articulated and formed to its ground in the relatively homogeneous dots; an austere construction, yet so much of nature and human life; the cool observer, occupied with his abstruse problems of art, and the common world of the crowds and amusements of Paris with its whimsical, even comic, elements; the exact mind, fanatic about its methods and theories, and the poetic visionary absorbed in contemplating the mysterious light and shadow of a transfigured domain. In this last quality – supreme in his drawings – he is like no other artist so much as Redon. Here Seurat is the visionary of the seen as Redon is the visionary of the hermetic imagination and the dream. ( Meyer Schapiro )

Study for Les Poseuses. Manfred Hermes:One of Haacke’s most intriguing pieces remains Seurat’s ‘Les Poseuses’ (small version) 1888-1975 (1975), in which he outlines the work’s changes in ownership along with some biographical data. Using only a few sheets of printed paper and some frames, the piece delivers a perfectly encapsulated history of art distribution and economic change from the late 19th until the late 20th century. The violence of an epoch is present between the lines, and for once it is really left to the viewer to fill in the gaps.

“It would, of course, be a delusion to assume that a work of art which exposed its commodity nature thereby overcame or transcended commodification: this artwork too is a commodity (unless the artist refuses ever to sell it). Nevertheless, in its favour it can be said it provides knowledge. Such works by Warhol and Opie may disturb those viewers who wish to separate commerce and culture, but their critical value is extremely limited. Hans Haacke’s oeuvre is more thoughtful and political: his photo-text, provenance pieces from the mid-1970s – Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus and Seurat’s Les Poseuses – systematically documented the ownership history of two nineteenth century paintings and the prices paid for them when they changed hands. Clinically, Haacke revealed the intimate connections between the ownership of art, wealth, power and big business.”

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