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June 25: Seurat thinks too much


In an earlier post (March 17, 2012) I lamented Georges Seurat’s self-defeating application of pointillism

"Le Chahut" 1889 [w'ped]
“Le Chahut” 1889 [w’ped]
to large compositions. But his big, striving showpieces got mired in another, equally counter-productive weakness: his notions about emotional response to compositional devices. For example, he thought that a bouncy, upward-sweeping shape evoked joy.

In “La Chahut,” which is supposed to be a joyful evocation of cancan dancers, we find the shape in the lights, the tips of the dancers’ shoes, shoulders, and hats, the male dancer’s coattails, the conductor’s moustache, the curve of the bassist’s arm and hand, and on and on. But however those little spritzes affect you, taken as a whole it’s a rigid, mannered piece.


Chert: La Loie Fuller [Wcom-jpg]
Cheret: La Loie Fuller [Wcom-jpg]







He might have looked more receptively at the posters of Jules Cheret, whose work he admired.







Or Toulouse-Lautrec. Compare Seurat’s “Circus” with Lautrec’s:

1891 [wikimedia]
Seurat “Circus” 1891 [wikimedia]
1888 [w'pedia]
Toulouse-Lautrec “Circus”  1888 [w’pedia]




Seurat’s “Circus” is unfinished–he was working on it when he died at the age of 31–but it is already sinking under its heavy burden of theory. Those silly bouncy shapes appear everywhere, even on the shoulders of the otherwise inert spectators.

Comparing artists is always an iffy thing, but Seurat’s big pieces definitely take a back seat to Cheret or Toulouse-Lautrec, who deliver far less theory and infinitely more delight.

Which is too bad, because his smaller works stand up to anyone’s. What he got so thoroughly was the reduction of shape and space to a physical and emotional essence. He should have stuck with that.

the bridge at Courbevoie 1886 [w'pedia]
the bridge at Courbevoie 1886 [w’pedia]