Seurat Re-viewed

Alex Danchev on an adventurous collection that brings the pointillist's remarkable oeuvre to life

October 21, 2010

Georges Seurat (1859-91) painted in dots. Miraculously, we joined the dots to make a world. Most famously, the dots made A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884, which transferred to Broadway almost exactly a century later in the form of Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sunday in the Park with George.

The Grande Jatte is effectively confined to the Art Institute of Chicago, but UK readers wishing to sample Seurat's peculiar and remarkable project could try Bathers at Asnières or Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp in the National Gallery, or Young Woman Powdering Herself in the Courtauld. He could also draw with the hand of a master. He used a conté crayon. His frozen figure studies - Seated Woman with a Parasol and Child in White - have a spooky delicacy; Seated Monkey is simian essence. The drawings are fascinating.

Seurat in his short life had perhaps as profound an impact as Van Gogh. Seurat Re-viewed is an attempt to take the measure or the temperature of his achievement. The international cast of contributors assembled by Paul Smith gives it a formidable authority. In order of appearance: Anthea Callen, Georges Roque, S. Hollis Clayson, Jonathan Crary, John House, Joan U. Halperin, Brendan Prendeville, Richard Shiff, Richard Hobbs and Smith himself. Some of the contributions are reprinted or revised from elsewhere. As a Seurat reader, the work is unsurpassed; it will surely last. As an artefact, it is expensive but beautifully produced, a little like a mini-catalogue, with 21 colour plates and some 50 black and white illustrations.

The book as a whole is eclectic and adventurous. There is a collective determination not to become mired in stale controversy - was Seurat "scientific"? Did he have a theory? Worse, did he borrow someone else's theory? Who then was the culprit? Colour theory is not ignored, but there is far more here than Seurat's palette and Chevreul's colour disc. There is poetry and politics, ethics and edges, the family and the father, sensation, disenchantment, timelessness, irony and absence. It is by turns thrilling and demanding.

Some of the constructions strain the patience of the full stop: "Despite the probity of various discussions of Seurat's figuration of social variety in the painting, its abstracted, formal language, with the clean edges of its forms and stylized costumes, has made difficult any decisive verdict on Seurat's depiction of class difference." But it is not all heavy weather. In a marvellous essay that is at the same time wise and witty, Richard Shiff puns on "Grave Seurat". In a characteristically telegraphic statement, Seurat once wrote to his colleague Signac, addressing the plight of their friend Albert Dubois-Pillet, a soldier-painter, "Dubois-Pillet very upset, may be reassigned. Serious. That's life."

Shiff takes this up and plays with it. "At what level does a statement like this - or a picture like the Grande Jatte, with its many caricatured social types - become coherent, rather than a mere collection of fragments? There is a message in 'Serious. That's life.' Grave. La vie quoi - a message characterized by its spacing and blanks as well as by its relatively independent verbal units. In Seurat's language, as elsewhere, pauses are part of the recognizable dance of suspended words, signs, and figures."

Seurat was a man of few words and discrete units; in modern parlance, a control freak. "Control was his defence against everything he knew he could not control," writes Shiff mordantly.

Seurat was nothing if not serious, powder-puffs and all. By presenting the world as if glimpsed from outside the flow of time, Smith proposes, he shows us how to be happy.

Seurat Re-viewed

Edited by Paul Smith

Penn State University Press 288pp, £75.95

ISBN 97801035451

Published 15 September 2010

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