Sunday, April 17, 2011

Georges Seurat - A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, continued

George Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884-1886
(Art Institute of Chicago)
Is this monumental painting by Georges Seurat a commentary on artifice, about alienation of modern life or is it actually a utopian vision?

There are clues to support both arguments, the calm and peacefulness that permeates the whole canvas, and the harmony of people from different classes enjoying a sunny day on the Island of Grand Jatte could be considered a utopian ideal of how society should be, representing a peaceful time in France without any war or revolutions. Everything in the painting is calm and sedate almost as if Seurat has captured and immortalized the one perfect moment.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Sacred Grove, 1884
(Art Institute of Chicago)
Art historian Linda Nochlin puts forth another idea though - that this is actually a criticism of modern society, an anti-utopian image.  Since everyhting should be analyzed in the right context, she starts her argument by first explaining what was considered Utopian at the time this painting was painted. The Sacred Grove by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, was exhibited in the Salon of 1884, the year Seurat started working on A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and according to Lochlin Seurat's painting might never have come into existence or at least not in this way if it was not for his older contemporary's work. If the Impressionists were the painters of modern life, depicting everyday events, people dressed in contemporary fashions going about in places that were in vogue at the time, then Puvis and his timeless muses in classical settings without any specificity was the antithesis of this type of painting.  Seurat seems to be enforcing the contemporaneousness and exactitude of his work even in his title - A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.  But Seurat's work was also in contrast to the  Impressionist's works like Renoir, who had created his own utopian vision in Dance at the Moulin de la Galette.  While Renoir's typical hazy brushwork, with fusing colors in this idyllic scene of merriment amongst the young working class women and middle class artists made the modern urban scene seem very natural, Seurat's stoic figures depicted in his highly technical brushwork made it seem strange.

Pierre-August Renoir, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette,1876
(Musee d'Orsay)
According to Nochlin, Seurat's painting can be interpreted as a criticism of the  banality and monotonousness of modern life with cookie-cutter figures standing around in what she calls his sardonic pageant of frozen recreation.1

Seurat achieved this almost mechanical impression due to his repetitive technique of divisionism, applying small dot-like strokes of similar size and shape on top of a uniform color.  The separate colors were supposed to be mixed by the viewers eye.  He used different patterns for different parts of the painting that was so elaborately done that at an ideal distance it was supposed to look like the real thing.  
Georges Seurat was familiar with Michel Eugene Chevreul's book, On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Color, which confirmed that harmony can be achieved by juxtaposing similar intensities of the same color or by balancing contrasting colors.  Chevreul proposed that combinations of complementary colors appear pleasing to the eye.  This is especially apparent in the frame of the painting that Seurat added later on to form a transitional zone to make the picture pop.  He also used what is known as the Chevreul illusion, when you put a slightly darker tone next to a slightly lighter tone the eye is tricked to see the outer edge darker. Seurat darkened the edges where they met the light areas to achieve a sharper contrast between the figure and the ground. 

Seurat made 27 preliminary sketches for this painting.  The landscape was en plein air study but for the figures he made drawings in his studio. The final sketch for the Grande Jatte was done in balaye, a criss-cross brush stroke. When looking at his separate sketches in becomes more apparent how he built up the final image for his painting. 

Georges Seurat, Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The technique and the structure of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, seem to reinforce the alienating, banal  and dehumanizing aspects of modern life.  As Linda Nochlin points out, "Seurat, with the dot, resolutely and consciously removed himself as a unique being projected by a personal handwriting."2  Georges Seurat, by his mechanical, disembodied construction of his painting undermined the Western tradition of representation and in the process angered a big part of the art community.  Especially Monet and Renoir hated this loss the sense of spontaneity and didn't show their work in the last Impressionist exhibit of 1886.  But a movement beyond Impressionism for avant-garde painting had already started to evolve and as a response to Seurat, Monet painted his version of monumental figures in landscape in strictly impressionist terms. 
1  Linda Nochlin, Seurat's Grande Jatte: An Anti-Utopian Allegory, 255-258
2  Ibid., 255

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