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Georges Seurat: The Drawings

A Special Exhibition Review by Beth S. Gersh-Nesic

It took a while to warm up to Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Those clean contours and static bodies did not initially appeal to an eye seeking artistic risk and verve. In fall of 2007, my cold shoulder melted into a soft, mushy crush on an exhibition of more than 135 works entitled Georges Seurat: The Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here were drawings that completely satisfied the senses—putting my teeth on edge with their assured renderings of deeply felt form that teeters between physicality and non-existence, like the residue of a dream.

Image © Collection André Bromberg; used with permission
Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891)
The Harvester, 1881
Conté crayon on paper
12 3/16 x 9 1/2 in. (31 x 24.1 cm)
© Collection André Bromberg

The medium in most of the works is conté crayon (compressed powdered graphite or charcoal, mixed with a wax or clay base) on Michallet paper, a highly textured laid weave that collects conté crayon in varying degrees, depending on pressure and number of strokes used. Seurat manipulated this black waxy stick masterfully, creating people, places and things that emerge out of a darkness accented by direct light (often achieved through reducing or erasing the conté marks from the surface).

Early student drawings, displayed in the beginning of the show, depend on the traditional graphite; later works might include some touches of chalk or gauche. To add color and an opportunity to eyeball Seurat's legendary Pointillist technique, small oil paint sketches appear here and there in this extensive survey of a too short career (he died at 31).

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; used with permission
Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891)
Aman-Jean, 1882-83
Conté crayon on paper
24 1/2 x 18 3/4 in. (62.2 x 47.6 cm)
Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© 1989 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The overall darkness of Seurat's drawings testifies to a modernist's take on the fragility of human existence—whispering about alienation and psychological solitude. Here are worlds that seem ghostly or ephemeral, like dreamscapes accumulated by a waking mind. The dream may be a relevant concept, since Seurat was affected by the contemporary Symbolist movement (1880s to 1890s) which found fertile ground in these insubstantial peregrinations of the mind (the motive behind Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899).

John C. Hutton, in Neo-Impressionism and the Search for Solid Ground: Art, Science, and Anarchism in Fin-de Siècle France (1994), explained that Seurat chose his subject matter to express his socially-minded anarchist sympathies. Seurat's masterpiece Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte (1884-86, Art Institute of Chicago), for example, should be read as a utopian vision of harmony (or disharmony, depending on whose work you read) among the classes. "Art is Harmony," Seurat wrote to Maurice Beaubourg on August 28 1890. "Gaiety in terms of tonal value is a luminous dominant tonality . . . lines above the horizontal . . . [for] Sadness . . . .line [in] downward directions." Rather than political ideology, Seurat preferred to explain the meaning of his artistic choices.*

That the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition highlighted Seurat's concern with technical harmony—colors, lines, tones, etc.—makes sense given Seurat's letter to Beaubourg. With this delicate balance of tension between modeling and flatness, the artist confidently coaxed into pictorial existence Parisian life (the cabarets, factory towns, artists' models and Sunday afternoon leisure) and a visionary sense of spatial perception.

Image © The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection; used with permission
Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891)
Landscape, Island of the Grande Jatte
(study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte), 1884, 1885,
Painted border ca. 1889-90
Oil on canvas
27 1/2 x 33 3/4 in. (69.9 x 85.7 cm)
© The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection

Small wonder the Cubist Georges Braque pinned a reproduction of Le Chahut (1889-90) in his studio. Seurat's ambiguous concept of space was revolutionary—a convincing demonstration of the elision of things in space, comparable to, but different from, Paul Cézanne's blending of overlapping planes, known as passage. Ultimately, Seurat and Cézanne both knew that expressing the presence of form on a two-dimensional surface required an intellectual leap of faith that the eye was incapable of truly perceiving. From Seurat's and Cézanne's experiments in ambiguous space, Cubism took the baton and ran, twenty years later.

Seurat's drawings may seem über-perfectionist and anal, but their essence belongs to a sensitive heart and courageous mind.

*Translation from Seurat in Perspective, edited by Norma Broude (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1978) 17-18.

Click here for a gallery of additional works of art in the special exhibition.

"Georges Seurat: The Drawings" was on view from October 28, 2007 through January 7, 2008 at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues New York, NY 10019-5497 (Telephone: 212-708-9400; Website). The museum is open Saturday through Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and is closed on Tuesday. Admission is $20.00 for adults, $16.00 for senior citizens (65 and over with ID), and $12.00 for full-time students with current ID. Free admission for members, children sixteen and under, and all visitors to the museum during Target Free Friday Nights, sponsored by Target, each Friday evening from 4:00-8:00 p.m.


From your Guide: Beth Gersh-Nesic, is an art history professor, author, art critic and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service which offers tours, lectures and workshops in various venues, including museums, galleries, artists' studios and arts organizations.

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