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Shortly before I visited the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago to see the exhibition Seurat and the Making of “La Grande Jatte”, an art historian friend in Berlin wrote me, asking if the show was traveling to Europe. The answer is no, and visitors to the exhibition are told the reason why: in 1958, a fire broke out at New York’s Museum of Modern Art while A Sunday on La Grande Jatte was on display there. Though Georges Seurat’s canvas was unharmed, the Art Institute decided that the painting would never again be lent. That absolute stipulation only serves to enhance the iconic mystique that has surrounded the painting after its arrival in the United States eighty years ago.
Ever since the painting’s first public exhibition, at the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, succeeding generations have found it necessary to reconsider the painting’s significance: both its presumed meaning and its impact on the history of art. For example, the initial viewers of the painting who greeted it with shock and derision did not anticipate its importance for a bevy of artists in France, Belgium, and beyond—standard-bearers for Seurat’s Neoimpressionist principles through and after his death in 1891. The reevaluations continue through the twentieth century to today. Former Art Institute Curator and later Director Daniel Catton Rich, who published a book with an almost identical title to this exhibition’s (Seurat and the Evolution of “La Grande Jatte” [New York: Greenwood Press, 1935]), was writing in the full flush of national pride at obtaining such a prize of French artistic achievement. His attempt at a thorough case study of Seurat’s working process appears limited, however, in the light of today’s far superior conservation and imaging technologies. In his book, Rich attributes the following quotation to Seurat: “[while] certain critics see some poetry in my work, I paint by my method with no other consideration” (6). Although some might feel that poetry makes a better basis for an exhibition than method, it is also true that technical data (or the means of presenting them) are becoming more and more visually evocative. Conservation concerns in the present exhibition focus on the “rejuvenation” of Seurat’s zinc yellow pigment, which has browned with age; more will be said later about that section.
The rest of the exhibition, meanwhile, takes a rather traditional approach to establishing a context for the subject matter, style, and technique of La Grande Jatte. The journey begins, logically enough, with an académie from Seurat’s student days at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; continues with a careful selection of French Realist and Impressionist landscapes; and, after a meaty central section devoted to the development of La Grande Jatte (with the Bathing Scene at Asnières as frontispiece), concludes with a salute to Seurat as the dean of French landscape painting at the fin-de-siècle. This is a lot of ground to cover for a “focus” exhibition, but La Grande Jatte is a monumental canvas that surely merits an exhibition equal to it in ambition.
The centerpiece of the show is a large round gallery in which more than three dozen drawn and painted studies for La Grande Jatte are grouped according to a winding nine-part itinerary—Seurat’s journey took two years—with the final painting as the climax. These groupings are based on an extended theatrical metaphor (“Setting the Scene,” “Definitive Stage Set,” and so on) in which Seurat is a director deciding on the stage design, the cast of characters, and their positions on stage. All of this is explained in a single-sheet handout, whose other advantage is to furnish a color reproduction of the painting for those moments when the real thing is blocked from view. (At most points in this gallery, the final painting is visible.) The multiple groupings, aided by a highly effective video screened in a side room, illustrate distinct stages of the painting’s evolution.
This “stations of the cross” conception, and the gallery beyond it showing the rejuvenation of the zinc yellow pigment, are the most powerful tools in the exhibition’s arsenal, truly exemplary of what a single-work exhibition can do best: bring us as close as possible to the work of art at the moment(s) of its making and initial presentation to the public.
Meeting one’s eyes after one turns the corner from the final painting is a full-scale reproduction of the same work, but with the zinc yellows restored to their original values. (The effect of this, of course, is to send one running back and forth between the two versions, trying to register the differences.) A helpful wall panel explains the method by which conservators and computer-imaging specialists determined the original values, and shows selected details under magnification. The contrast between actual and rejuvenated color patches—remarkable under magnification, modestly perceptible in real scale—is itself an eloquent test of optical mixing as theory and practice.
The color-converted reproduction is not just a thrill of technological wizardry; it is also the anchor of a gallery seeking to recreate the conditions of the painting’s first public viewing. Thus La Grande Jatte neighbors, just as at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition, works by Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro and others by Seurat; unfortunately, these could not be joined by any of the five oils by Lucien Pissarro, whose locations are today unknown. The tribute to Seurat’s influence on this group continues in the next room, where we do see one example by Lucien (Church at Eragny). All of the paintings in this final gallery (except for those by Seurat) are landscapes, which underscores one of the exhibition’s biases.
That bias is to present Seurat above all as a landscapist, with a surprising deemphasis on the figures in La Grande Jatte. The placement of figures in a landscape, though amply accounted for in the series of preparatory studies leading toward the painting, does not emerge as one of Seurat’s major preoccupations or achievements, by the lights of the exhibition. In fact, the possible precedents for his extraordinary profile figures (the usual suspects: Egyptian art, Piero della Francesca’s frescos, contemporary fashion plates, and cartoons) are put forth as a souped-up collage along the wall of a corridor, not in a very serious way. Whereas the exhibition presents Seurat’s approach to landscape perhaps too neatly as a direct outgrowth of Impressionism, it remains relatively silent on the evolution of his figural style: from academic nudes to Realist laborers to the radically re-visioned figures of what Meyer Schapiro called the “secular congregation” in La Grande Jatte. What is clear, if only by default, is that Seurat did not get his figures from the Impressionists, nor did his fellow Neoimpressionists take them from him. Camille Pissarro’s Gathering Apples, which was displayed alongside La Grande Jatte in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition and is on view here, bears that out.
In an earlier gallery, the connection between Seurat’s early figure types and those of Realist painters, particularly Jean-François Millet, calls for further explication. Millet’s Woodchoppers is near but not adjacent to the related Stonebreakers by Seurat, and the unmistakable reference to The Gleaners in Seurat’s small canvas of Farm Women at Work is left tacit. Instead, the emphasis in this second, warehouselike gallery is on the large selection of Impressionist paintings, which seem arranged to suggest a progression toward a more Divisionist technique. We should not forget that it is only an accident Seurat exhibited with the Impressionists at all in 1886: La Grande Jatte had been intended for the Society of Independent Artists exhibition.
Complementing Seurat’s forays into color division were his tonal experiments in Conté crayon, the subject of the opening gallery. These early noirs have such exquisite texture that they virtually defy comparison or contextualization. The “tooth” of Seurat’s Michallet paper yields effects unlike those of the Millet drawings (to say nothing of the Francisco de Goya and Honoré Daumier lithographs) displayed in the same room. Moreover, the inclusion of these three artists invites an inquiry into Seurat’s left-leaning political beliefs, which are not a concern of the exhibition. In short, this first gallery feels unexpectedly diffuse, and the context it proposes risks diluting the essence of Seurat’s achievement (what does Goya really have to do with it?). But overall the exhibition does a wonderful job of underscoring Seurat’s continued use of noirs throughout the colorful odyssey of La Grande Jatte.
There is sometimes the fear, upon entering a focus exhibition of this type, that the organizers will have “murdered to dissect,” but that is far from the case here. In model fashion, they have let the artist’s technique and meticulous preparations elucidate, not overwhelm, the picture. It is the nature of icons, and perhaps their misfortune, to be immediately recognized rather than carefully regarded, but this exhibition ensures that we will never see La Grande Jatte—nor its afterlife in culture high and low—the same way again. This is our generation’s chance for a long look at it, and the painting will not be any less loved for being better understood.
Curator and Interim Senior Director of Academic and Curatorial Initiatives, Smart Museum of Art; Lecturer, Department of Art History, University of Chicago
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