Georges Seurat : The Drawings

New York, The Museum of Modern Art, from 28 October 2007 to 7 January 2008

Ever since the Musée du Louvre opened its doors to contemporary artists, the question of chronological and geographical boundaries for each of the Parisian museums has become a matter of state. In New York, the debate has been going on for some time and has erupted into open war. The latest development is no doubt the new presentation of XIXth century European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, a veritable critical revision of the hang at the new MoMA. Whereas the latter claims to give an account of a modern revolution, initiated by Cézanne, Van Gogh and Seurat, which then materialized itself in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and continued throughout the XXth century, the Metropolitan says exactly the contrary : all of these artists, including Picasso when he paints Gertrude Stein, are the logical artistic accomplishment of the XIXth century. Given these diverging interpretations — both of which are partially valid —, it is not surprising to see that when the two institutions organize temporary exhibitions, they do it in the most opposing manner possible. This year, it is Georges Seurat’s turn (1859-1891) : while the Met offered a “classical” retrospective in 1991, accompanied by a monumental catalogue with scholarly entries, the MoMa this fall has purposefully chosen a “modern” presentation of the artist’s drawings, downplaying a strictly historical approach and offers a catalogue which includes essays more or less related to the subject. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

1. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Satyr and Goat, 1877-1879
Charcoal - 63.5 x 48.3 cm
Dian Woodner Collection WD-

On this occasion, the MoMA director himself made the illustration, so to speak : Seurat is presented clearly as an artist who knew how to reject his academic training and establish his own style, leading directly to abstraction. According to the show’s curator, Jodi Hauptman, the first saving revelation for the young artist came during his military service in Brest in 1879-80 : since he no longer had the plaster models of antique statues that he was used to working with at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Seurat observed everyday life around him and recorded the events in his sketchbooks. These are not just displayed under glass, the pages can also be turned virtually. Instead of making the presence of the sketchbooks seem obsolete, this digitized confrontation, intrinsically more luminous and in fact blinding, proves how it can never replace the support of the original work which absorbs the surrounding light and refracts only a small part of it. Fortunately, preservation measures prevent putting drawings under the same light as paintings, which often makes these as captivating as a plasma screen. The study of the artist’s sketchbooks also serves to immediately dispel the dichotomy posed by the exhibition : the artist who will become the “true” Seurat draughtsman, the one who eliminates lines in favor of subtle shadings of tone indicating at the same time form, light and space, this Seurat, therefore, the patient craftsman and not the spontaneous genius, this very one is not as present in the hastier sketches as in the copies of antique models, for instance the unfinished Satyr and Goat, where the contours and modeling seem to be evanescent (ill. 1).

2a. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Aman-Jean. 1882-1883
Conté crayon - 62.2 x 47.6 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum

2b. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Aman-Jean, 1882-1883
(detail of the watermark)
Conté crayon - 62.2 x 47.6 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum

In the catalogue, Karl Buchberg analyzes in detail the key components of this graphic manner which is so unique to the artist, the famous Conté crayon and the legendary Michallet paper. Unlike his painting technique, in which his empirical approach reveals the absence of any theoretical pretentiousness, Seurat the draughtsman’s “modus operandi” is as simple as it is effective. Rather than grasping drawing as line, the artist prefers to blacken more or less entire areas of the page. Between the whiteness of the blank paper and absolute black, familiar extremes to draughtsmen for many centuries, he manages to obtain infinite nuances of half-shades thanks to the textured weave of the support. Let us take a look at the first work he displayed to the public at the Salon de 1883, the portrait of his friend and fellow artist Edmond Aman-Jean (ill. 2a). Nothing is white except the collar on the model ; nothing is black except for the hair and the front of the jacket. Everything is shaded. The crayon touches the paper almost everywhere, but so lightly in some places that the gridded weave of the Michallet pages is transparent, creating the attenuated luminosity so typical of the artist. The more he blackens the weave, the more it stands out, allowing for an infinite number of variations while still giving the impression of a remarkable atmospheric consistency. In a sense, the “Michallet” watermark inscribed in this manifesto portrait almost takes on the semblance of a signature (ill. 2b).

3. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
The Nurse. 1882-1883
Conté crayon - 32 x 24.5 cm
Andrea Woodner Collection

4. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Promenoir, 1887-1888
Ink - 29.8 x 22.4 cm
Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum

Obviously, it is not only a matter of technique ; there is also genius at work. A genius that filters through his drawings as miraculously as the light that springs from the associations of light and dark that the artist calls “irradiation”. To create space, Seurat plays with the surface : the Nurse (ill. 3) stands out clearly against a white background, her dark dress on the edge, with the black space in front of her, further intensified by the contact of the white infant and the apron. An extremely simple method, but never used in a systematic way, and although the apparent “doodling” is frequent it never disturbs our spatial vision, on the contrary, only serves to thicken the atmosphere. Contrary to classical tradition, the line no longer outlines the shape. It is in this sense that Signac’s remark is more easily understood, when he spoke of the works as “the most beautiful drawings by a painter ever” : even on paper, Seurat thinks like a painter, that is in terms of tonal values. And, in fact, the technique is only secondary, since the same effect can be achieved with a very fine pen (ill. 4).

5. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
La Grille, 1882-1884
Conté crayon - 24.8 x 32.4 cm
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

6. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
The Plowing, 1882-1883
Conté crayon - 24.5 x 32 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay

When his subjects broaden to include landscapes, Seurat is careful not to lose this sense of spatial certainty that permeated his figures. From a distance, La Grille (ill. 5) shows us the easily defined space of a street leading to the entrance of a house, where the fence runs parallel to another road. And yet, close up, this beautiful arrangement blurs : there is no difference in the treatment, not even a transition, between the leafage of the tree in the foreground and the fence which is the subject of the composition. Everything is gray, flat and granular. Klimt was practically the only other artist who managed to apply such an idea successfully. When looking at other country landscapes, barely inhabited by ghosts (ill. 6), they bring to mind old photographs, of the artist’s period, or in an anachronistic but comparable manner, a black and white film in which the night scenes are shot in daylight with an almost closed diaphragm. Literally, it’s night and day.

7. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Landscape, the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
Huile sur toile - 69.9 x 85.7 cm
The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection

Three-fourths of the way through the exhibition, we must admit the eyes start to give out. It is after all only natural, having looked attentively at over one hundred drawings, all of which are very minute since they were executed as carefully as full-fledged works. One almost regrets not having a more concentrated approach in the show, since an extremely important facet of Seurat’s graphic production is still ahead, that is the numerous preliminary studies for his master paintings, from Bathers at Asnières to Poseuses, and of course Sunday on La Grande Jatte. A study for this last work holds place of honor here, incredible in depth, clarity and pure colour (ill. 7) : by displaying Seurat’s canvases the exhibition chooses to contradict its own premise—to the visitor’s delight, we must confess. Compared to the somber atmospheres of the previous works, there is an incredible freshness in this sunlit space, all the more majestic for the absence of human figures. After this, one wonders about Seurat’s mysterious passing from drawing to painting. There are certainly many things in common between the two media, beginning with the texture of the paper, so unique and almost pointilliste, as Hubert Damisch reminds us in the catalogue. Of course, the forms always stand out in an almost supernatural way—for instance one notices the child’s dress which, in the drawing, looks like a vertical Rothko (ill. 8), before finding its place naturally in the crowd on La Grande Jatte. But the story of this painting, adapted only later to the pointillist “method”, speaks eloquently about the artist’s tendency to renew himself constantly. There is therefore a kind of laziness in trying to automatically relate each study to its final result, intrinsically different—the most unexpected event in the Swim or La Grande Jatte being surely the miraculous passing, like an epiphany, from the hazy drawings to the sunlit painting.

8. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte
(known as The White Child), 1884
Conté crayon - 30.5 x 23.5 cm
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim

9. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Au Concert parisien, 1887-1888
Conté crayon and white chalk -
31.5 x 23.7 cm
Cleveland, Museum of Art

The main feature of the exhibition—if one overlooks a coda on coastal scenes—is the remarkable series on Cafés-concerts, where the drawings each reveal a differing viewpoint of the stage, from the musician to the spectator, from the first row to the last—and what an impression to glimpse, way behind all those people’s hats, the singer of the Concert Parisien standing next to the man you would swear is her partner (ill. 9) ! Our marvel at this art makes the catalogue’s introduction all the more upsetting : Jodi Hauptman attempts very seriously to interpret Seurat’s art as an “aesthetics of silence”. Even if one is unaware of the artist’s fascination, via the Symbolists, for Wagner, even if one overlooks Noise, even if one has forgotten everything, how can one affirm, denying visual evidence, that the young man of The Echo (ill. 10) is “perfectly silent”, or that the singers of the Cafés-concerts are mute because their mouths are not open ? It leaves us speechless.

10. Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Study for Bathers at Asnières (known as The Echo), 1883
Conté crayon - 31.2 x 24 cm
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery

For an infinitely more exact perception of the artist, one should read closely Bridget Riley’s essay, both an extremely rigorous criticial analysis and a moving account of Seurat’s influence on later generations. The text reveals the image of a modern classic, unless the reverse is true, perfectly in tune with his objective of “showing, like on [the] friezes [of the Parthenon] the moderns in their essence”. A paradox, certainly, but much richer than a starkly determined position. Finally, the exhibition can be termed successful in this sense, reflecting the hang in the museum : it raises questions for those willing to ask them. After all, what does it matter if the organizers did not think of doing so ?

Neville Rowley, samedi 5 janvier 2008

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