Museum of Modern Art, 269 pp., $49.95
Impressionism, our impression is, proceeded by instinct, its stabs of high color pursuing what the eyes of Monet and Renoir and Pissarro and Sisley found in the open air, as sunlight’s spectrum flitted across the sight of haystacks, poppy-dotted fields, and rippled water. Analysis was left to Postimpressionism, whose varied masters, with a greater or lesser degree of programmatic determination, put forward terms for their own art and the art of the future. Neither Cézanne nor Van Gogh was more resolutely theoretical than Georges Seurat. Born in 1859 and dead at the age of thirty-one, in 1891, Seurat was temperamentally taciturn—Pissarro called him “mute”—and confided a statement of his theories to paper only once, in an unsent three-page letter of August 28, 1890, in response to queries from the critic Maurice Beaubourg.
In it Seurat wrote, “Art is Harmony,” and “Harmony is the analogy of opposites,” that is, of complementary colors, which he lists: “Red—Green, Orange—Blue, Yellow—Violet.” But not only opposites (contraires) are enlisted in the effects but “similarities” (semblables); Jodi Hauptman’s introduction to the catalog of Seurat’s drawings translates a section of his difficult text as
The means of expression is the optical mixture of tones, of tints, that is, of the lights and of their reactions (shadows), following the laws of contrast, of gradation, of irradiation.
From scientific studies of color by Michel-Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood, and David Sutter, Seurat had extracted the concept that, to the human retina, each spot of pure color bears a halo of its complement.
On this abstruse principle he based pointillism, or divisionism, a painstaking method of painting in discrete dots whose intense colors are mixed in the viewer’s eye. Seurat’s palette was closely patterned on Chevreul’s color disk—four basic colors and their intermediaries were mixed with varying amounts of white and applied in carefully separated dots. So quixotically pedantic a technique achieved vindication in the first two major paintings Seurat produced—A Bathing Place, Asnières (1883) and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886)—and several smaller sea-scapes; they are stately, serene, and soaked in light as few canvases are. La Grande Jatte, especially, caused a controversial sensation with its “scientific Impressionism.” The influence of pointillism extended beyond Seurat’s few immediate followers, of which Paul Signac was the foremost, to Van Gogh, Cubism, Paul Klee, Robert Delaunay, and Wassily Kandinsky, who wrote that Seurat had showed “not a fragment of Nature…but Nature complete and entire in all her splendor.” The marriage of art to scientific principles remains a chimerical goal appealing to this day; Chuck Close’s photorealism by the patient means of a grid of abstract daubs is admired in Richard Shiff’s catalog essay.
The exhibition of Seurat’s drawings at the Museum of Modern Art gets some welcome color from a few oil studies for paintings and from small photographic reproductions of paintings for which some drawings were preliminary sketches. But the profound and grainy black of Conté crayon is the dominant shade, and four big rooms of it—130 drawings in all—test the gallery-goer’s eyes. The first room’s handsome, precocious student drawings of antique casts and nude models (the superb, soulful Male Nude, Profile of 1877–1878; the gnarly, nearly headless Aged Hindu of circa 1878–1879) establish that Seurat began as a disciple of Ingres, with his fine outlines and neoclassic cool. Indeed, Seurat’s drawings persistently aspire to the smooth, grave, impersonal essence of Greek sculpture. He said, “The Panathenians of Phidias formed a procession. I want to make modern people, in their essential traits, move about as they do on those friezes.”
By 1880, having completed his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts under Henri Lehmann (a pupil of Ingres) and his year of military service in Brest, Seurat began to draw in a new, theory-driven manner. His linear sketches of fellow soldiers give way, in Seated Woman (1880–1881), to a figure entirely blocked in with diagonal pencil shading, and in Woman with Basket (1881–1882) to a figure sketched from behind in Conté crayon, fundamentally dark against the light paper but with some searching linear swirls reminiscent of Daumier’s lithographs.
Nude (1881–1882) and Nurse and Child (1881–1882) banish any hint of an outline; figures are defined as they emerge from a dark ground of Conté crayon—swirls of it like a greasy mist. Tree by a Road (1881–1882) does away with definition almost entirely—the tree is a blur, the road a double arc of relative pallor—and Landscape with Houses (1881–1882) poses its geometric forms beyond a foreground, a good half of the image, almost solidly black. Forms feel carved out of an underlying darkness. The elegant profile Aman-Jean (1882–1883)—Seurat’s first publicly displayed drawing, hung at the Salon of 1883—is accomplished in a somewhat conventional range of grays, with a conventional precision, but the contemporaneous heads of his mother, Embroidery and The Artist’s Mother, show how brilliantly the artist, as the Conté crayon warms in his hand, is willing to go in the direction of minimal linear indication and maximum saturation in black.
From the early 1880s on, Seurat drew almost exclusively on quarter-sheets (roughly nine by twelve inches) of a handmade laid (as opposed to machine-made wove) French paper called Michallet. Consisting of pulp dried on a rectangular frame of fine metal rods, Michallet paper retained, as alternately raised and depressed parallels, the impression of the fine rods, and, at right angles, that of the less close “chain” lines impressed by the wires that kept the rods aligned. Conté crayon, a soft mixture of clay and pulverized graphite or carbon or both, brought up the texture of the paper even when very lightly used, and when applied heavily created a dense black.
By these means Seurat achieved a sort of black-and-white pointillism, a style of rendering that employed minute marks as they accumulated in the viewer’s eye. A phrase of Seurat’s recorded by the Symbolist writer Gustave Kahn can be applied to the drawings as well as the paintings: Seurat spoke to Kahn of “l’art de creuser une surface“—translated, rather fancifully by Richard Shiff in the catalog, as “the art of fathoming a surface.” Creuser has the basic sense of digging, of excavating. “Hollowing out” a surface is what the drawings do, especially those, like Woman Reading (circa 1882) and Woman with Two Little Girls (1882–1884), where a prevalent darkness yields a few pale areas that read as forms in murky space. In Night Stroll (1887–1888), which exists in a pen-and-ink version as well as in a stronger Conté crayon one, a light ground accepts dark blurs that uncannily convey the impression of bodies in a partially occluding and, in the second instance, moonlit atmosphere.
Seurat’s secretive, crepuscular temperament was drawn to the tawdry area of Paris just outside the walls, called “The Zone,” and to the industrial suburbs—Saint-Denis, Asnières, Courbevoie, “the country of the stinking industries,” as Louis Barron wrote, or, in a phrase of Victor Hugo’s, “the limbos of Paris.” Seurat’s first two major canvases, showing suburbanites enjoying sunny leisure, derive from these limbos, but his drawings, often done during walks in the dusk, show a joyless landscape of railway right-of-ways, factories, and lonely laborers. In Drawbridge (1882–1883) the bridge lifts its iron beams like beseeching arms, right off the Michallet paper’s deckled upper edge; in Steamboat (1882–1883) the dark vessel looks like a squashed bug on the floor of the pale river. In Wine Tumbril (1882–1883) the great wheels of the vehicle can hardly be disentangled from the writhing scribbles of the surrounding gloom. A ragpicker and a tramp (his hat at a jaunty angle as he slumps under a bridge) loom in stark silhouette; such near-total blackouts as Cart with Grazing Horse (circa 1883), Two Wagons (circa 1883), and Rain (1882–1883) lead the dutiful viewer to ask himself, somewhere in his long circum-navigation of the second and third rooms, Who was Seurat doing these for? The drawings were not, except for the showpiece Aman-Jean and a few later, picturesque specimens, put on display, or sold. They were done, one must conclude, in a spirit of scientific research—an ongoing experiment in drawing with nothing but masses of shading, thus creuser the paper surface.
It is paradoxical that this follower of Ingres, concerned with the laws of optics and of orderly artistic procedure, in practice produced drawings so expressionist in their violent scribbles and nocturnal atmospherics. Some figures, such as those in The Veil (1882– 1884) and The Lamp (1882– 1883), approach in their surrealism the charcoals and lithographs of the older French artist Odilon Redon; the landscapes The Edge of the Forest (circa 1883), In a Park (circa 1883), and Tree Trunks Reflected in Water (1883–1884) come close to total abstraction. It is a rare scene that, like Place de la Concorde, Winter (1882– 1883), gives us, in its range of white to black and its illusion of recession, the sense of a space in which we might move and breathe.
Things brighten in the fourth and final room of the exhibition, dominated by drawings preparatory to Seurat’s precious few paintings. His figures were never more statuesque and classically solid than in his studies of naked boys for A Bathing Place, Asnières. Two luminous seascapes, Grand-camp, Evening (1885) and Lighthouse and Mariners’ Home, Honfleur (1886), illustrate the lessons in tonal contrast that Seurat’s drawing exercises had taught him. A piquant model, one of the three depicted in the painting Poseuses (1886–1888), poses in three media—an oil sketch in rough pointillism, a relatively tender Conté crayon, and an ink and pencil outline, lightly stippled. After his chef d’oeuvre, La Grande Jatte, Seurat turned for subject matter to street fairs, music halls, and the circus—a strange turn, since his formalized mature style could hardly have been less suited to animated action. But the democratic instincts that drew him to the Zone and the industrial suburbs relished popular entertainments, and his art included a certain caricatural wit.
One wall of the final room holds a series of theater drawings—At the Concert Européen, High C, Music Hall Scene, At the Gaîté Rochechouart, Café Singer, Eden Concert (all from 1886–1888)—that show Seurat willing to vary his medium with chalk and gouache and Gillot paper and to subdue his technique to subject matter. We become interested in what the drawings show as well as how they show it. In these gaslit interiors the performers on stage are seen in a pale haze of illumination while the audience—drolly ovoid heads topped with bowler hats and upswept hairdos—and the agitated orchestra populate a dark foreground. The two clowns described as a study for Parade (1887– 1888) are faceless and absent from the painting, but the vivid trombonist in its center is even more of a presence in the Conté crayon drawing.
It is the figure studies for La Grande Jatte, however, that belong, in their delicacy and radical simplicity, among the masterpieces of modern European drawing. Seated Monkey (1884), in a pose not used in the finished painting, projects a simian essence, a shadow so faintly swiped onto the paper that its grid of distinct laid and chain lines appears the pattern of a costume, a pattern that, in the very slightly darker head, seems to hold an eye and a hint of a frown. Seated Woman with a Parasol (1884–1885) is majestic against the paper’s white ground, her hat smaller than in the painting, where she seems rather squat, sprouting from the grass like a colored mushroom; in the drawing she has her full height, and a bosom whose softness is suggested by a blur haloing the crayon’s darkest, most nearly solid black.
Young Woman (1884–1885), who appears in the painting as a small figure just above the seated woman’s parasol, is even more Bracusi-esque in her streamlined shape, a silhouette so nearly featureless that we marvel at the artistic conscience that preserved this notation and fitted its tiny piece of humanity into the grand mosaic. And Child in White (1884) seems less a representation than an abstraction, with its white rectangle and two trapezoids; but there it is, very near the center of the panorama, those geometric shapes having become the bodice, skirt, and crown of a sunhat worn by a little girl caught up in the enchanted stillness of this Sunday moment—a moment that the young French artist, out to revolutionize the way we paint and draw what we see, froze in time at the threshold of modernism, when the ideals of tranquillity and order could still be thought to rule.