Seurat as Street Photographer

Seeing the exhibit of Georges Seurat drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, I could not help but think that the artist would have been a brilliant photographer.

Like many people, I know Seurat best for his obsession with the aesthetics and science of color, perhaps most famously in works like “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” In Seurat’s drawings, however, you also see his keen sense of light, a simplification of subject matter to their base geometries, lines softening to their light and dark cores, a full tonal range of black and white. The subject matter suggests that he would have been equally comfortable as a portrait, street or theater photographer.

Street Artist – Seurat would often roam the streets of Paris with notebook in hand. He would quickly sketch individuals who caught his eye, and he was also known to wander the poorer districts of the city for his artistic studies. The New York Times says:

The sketchbooks show us Seurat on the move, roaming late 19th-century Paris and its more ragged outskirts, noting life in all its aspects. If you want to understand how Seurat’s dark, silhouetted figures convey such an accurate sense of body language, consult these facsimiles. People rush across the pages, as if the whole town were out on an errand. They work hard: Women scrub floors, men wield scythes or break stones for Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards. But they also come to rest, sometimes at cafes or on park benches, sometimes sprawled on the ground, exhausted from backbreaking labor or possibly just passed out drunk.

Portraitist – Associate Curator Jodi Hauptman describes the drawing “Embroidery: The Artist’s Mother,” as a “sculptural abstraction,” a “massing of dark and light tones, enveloped in a soft, velvety blackness.”

Theater Artist – According to Hauptman, Seurat worked on his Cafe-Concert series from the1880s until his death. The series, which Seurat intended as a statement on spectatorship, included “scenes of popular entertainment: acrobats, clowns, circus performers, singers available to city dwellers.” From drawing to drawing, Seurat would shift from position to position, “from long shots to closeups.”

Hauptman also explains Seurat’s choice of materials and his techniques: how Seurat used the textures of the different sides (the “wire” sides and “felt” sides) of his chosen Michallet paper; how he varied in his use of conte crayon, charcoal, black chalk, graphite. In a drawing, he might use an ‘initial light layer of crayon, then subsequent layer of intense darks.’

In drawings like Square House, he would incorporate the texture of the paper. He would divide a sheet of Michallet paper (handmade laid paper, texture of thin parallel ridges called laid lines and more widely spaced perpendicular troughs called chain lines) into four equal sections. Depending on whether the drawing was more of a vertical or horizontal, he would then turn the paper and align the laid lines accordingly.

[In “Eden Concert”], rather than using white of paper to render luminosity and layering of conte to indicate darkness as he had done in past, he now intensifies brightness with either white chalk or white gouache and uses blue pastel for the murky dimness of the theater interior.

The New Yorker calls the exhibit “an exhausting encounter with radical beauty.”

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I have started a microblog on Tumblr. Too often, I want to just jot down quotes that I come across or quick thoughts that come to mind, but they sometimes seem too trivial for my main blog, where, for whatever reason, more and more I feel the need to make my entries weightier. My Tumblr micro-blog is like my electronic journal. Offline, I am also now trying EverNote as a place to keep my notes and thoughts. (For years, I have kept paper journals. I now wonder how I convert those many pages into digital, searchable text–assuming it is all worthwhile, of course.)

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How do all of you cope with your reading that you want to do? These days I am inundated with financial and economic reading because of work. The reading is getting critical, since I do believe that we have reaching a historical turning point in the global economy, one that can potentially make or unmake our lot in life. Reading business publications, economic research and financial newsletters hardly nourishes the soul, however, and I am finding it difficult to find time for personally-important reading in literature and the visual arts.

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