DemosNews: Seurat Drawing Exhibition at MOMA
Seurat Drawing Exhibition at MOMA
By: HermioneSG

There’s a fascinating case history in Oliver Sacks “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” of an artist who suddenly lost all perception of color through some traumatic accident. He tried desperately to remember the tints and color energies that drove his work, and to reconstruct and harness them somehow by rote. In the end, he had to let that go. Instead, gradually, he began to fall in love with the voluptuousness of seeing the world as pure form, the special lens that black and white and the tonal scale between them enables. Years later, when he had the opportunity to regain color vision, he no longer desired its distraction.

That sensual delight in light and dark to model and compose, abstracted further by special textured paper that splits tones into shimmering bits, is the special purview of Georges Seurat’s magnificent drawings showing now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 28, 2007 through January 7, 2008.) Drawings allow the observer rare insight into an artist’s thought process and exploration because everything is laid bare, not hidden or reworked under layers of paint or construction. Line, form, and the play of light sketched from life or in plein air breathe with special spontaneity.

Even among the early examples in the exhibition, formal academic studies from plaster casts and student sketches, two startling drawings evidence Seurat’s break-though experimentation. Very strongly contrasting light and dark slice “Aged Hindu” (c. 1879-1879) vertically, rendering his ascetic form even more gaunt and affecting. Tiny inventive details maneuver his body outward toward us and away: the fine dark line behind the yogi’s ear and the deepest dark along the swell of his forearm pull these to the fore; the delicate line of his averted gaze and of his withered belly fade almost to nil, distant. If one squints, even the flow of dark and light shapes on the page feels modern and piquant.

Hanging directly beside it, a voluptuous female nude (one of the standouts of the show, 1881-1882) rises in full living volume, coaxed from the rich conté black haze by light. Tonalities alone sculpt her, and move her through space Virtually all of the edges are very soft.

The same technique, now exquisitely refined, portrays the artist’s mother, contemplative and deeply serene (1882-1883). Almost otherworldly, she materializes as if drawn in smoke, so subtle are the tonal modulations and lack of hard line.

Sometimes the challenge of a light/dark contrast as compositional focus seems to intrigue Seurat particularly, even above subject. In “Woman in White and Black,” (1882) a black skirt, butting up under the rise of her white jacket seen from behind, provides the punch of the drawing. Light spilling to the lady’s right serves to attract the drift of her gaze and leaven the page, rather than reflect an actual luminous source. In “The Veil” (1882-1884), the short horizontal contrast of darkened hat veil to glowing nose tip and cheek play against the tilt of the lady’s black torso and her slight displacement sideways within the dusky ground. Such explorations, so unexpected, linger on the brain.

Save for the nude mentioned above, Seurat’s women are not salacious. They are tightly clothed, a player in the composition. Sometimes they dissolve entirely. In “Child in White” (study for La Grande Jatte, 1884), the figure remains a pale rectangular void, only her hat casting shade and the bend of her lap indicated, but she is already carefully placed in a formally modulated space. “Young Woman” (study for La Grande Jatte, 1884-1885) exists only as misty swells of head, darkened torso, and hip, as abstract and ethereal as an Arp sculpture.

Seurat’s peers rode the new locomotives outside Paris during the last decades of the 19th century. Often they painted the pretty countryside, byways, and boating or dance hall diversions. Seurat’s black and white sketches, by contrast, caught odd, moody moments, bent workers, and stark landscapes depicted in fiercely inventive ways: broad swathes of light and dark pressing against one another, texture against smooth, a dark cart tilting off kilter. “Railway Tracks” (1881-1882) depicts a pale sky punctured by receding poles, the dark textured train tracks and upright cypresses compressed against two edges of the frame. “Drawbridge” (1882-1883), a pair of huge dark angular forms yawing open to receive the downward thrust of dimly lit sky and the somber motion of a ship, has the clout of Franz Kline. “The Gateway” (1882-1884) plays clean virginal walls against lush texture, with an unexpected dark swag at left and streak of light on the ground to add dynamic.

The final portion of the show modulates into Seurat’s color material and studies for his famous pointillist tableaux. Most charming and instructive is the little oil sketch on wood “Model Facing Front” (study for Poseueses, 1886), which still retains a freshness and spontaneity often lost in his large formal paintings. Airy dabs of color that mix in the eye (Seurat’s key contribution to the history of art) sculpt her nude body. Dark and light as modeling tools now cede to warm and cool, the language of color.

Seurat is an artist’s artist. Walk through the exhibit wondering why he made particular decisions, what achieves his effects. His drawings are an education and a great delight.

© 2019 HermioneSG of DemosNews

November 20, 2007 at 8:44am
DemosRating: 4.5
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Genre: Arts (Reviews)
Type: Critical
Tags: art, review

Links:  www.moma.org

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