The French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat (18591891) is considered to be one of the icons of nineteenth-century art and the most important exponent of Pointillism, a style of painting he developed. With about sixty paintings, oil studies, and drawings from public and private collections in London, Paris, Zurich, New York, San Francisco, a.o., the exhibition in the Schirn Kunsthalle
offers a representative survey and, at the same time, focuses on a crucial aspect of Seurats oeuvre: the figure in space. No other pictorial subject tells more about Seurats art. Both his paintings and drawings testify to his great interest in the subject, which he dedicated himself to throughout his entire creative career. The artist initially looked to groups such as the École de Barbizon, to epochs like the Renaissance, or to fellow artists such as Puvis de Chavannes, but realized his subjects in a new painting technique and innovative compositions. Examining the Impressionists pictorial solutions and the most recent scientific insights in the fields of physiology and chromatics, Georges Seurat developed the method that went down in art history as Pointillism and became an important source of inspiration for later artists.
Together with Paul Cézanne (18391906), Vincent van Gogh (18531890), and Paul Gauguin (18481903), Georges Seurat, who was born in Paris in 1859, numbers among the most important pioneers of modern art. He produced a significant oeuvre before his early death from diphtheria at the age of 31. He had already begun to draw and dedicate himself to art-theoretical writings in his schooldays. After taking drawing lessons for two years, he entered the École des Beaux Arts in 1878 and began to study with Henri Lehmann, a pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Initially, he continued his training in the classical vein, devoting himself mainly to the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Holbein, Poussin, and Ingres. After only one year probably not least under the impression of the fourth Impressionist exhibition Seurat left the Paris Academy and increasingly abandoned its traditions.
In the following years, Seurat extended his knowledge in the theory of colors and the effects of colors on the human eye beyond any academic constraints. He studied the works of the art theorist Charles Blanc, the writer and color theorist Charles Henry, and the American physicist Ogden N. Rood. He was also decisively influenced by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreuls theory of pigments regarding the perception of colors and additive color combination. Chevreul primarily explored the laws of simultaneous contrast and how colors change with increasing distance. Around 1883, Seurat, inspired by these scientific findings, developed his method of painting based on the simultaneous contrast of adjacent colors, which was to become famous under the name of Pointillism. Paints were no longer mixed on the palette, but dabbed onto the canvas with a brush as pure colors in the form of meticulously applied and densely packed dots. The overall impression of a surfaces or paintings coloring only comes about in the eye of the beholder as an optical mixture when perceived from a certain distance.
Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte (18841886), a key work of Neo-Impressionism and Seurats most remarkable composition, in which he uncompromisingly relied on the Pointillist technique for the first time, is presented in the Schirn in the form of several small-size preliminary studies. Widely discussed in the context of the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, this work made Seurat the leader of the new avant-garde around Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, and Maximilian Luce. With their new technique and understanding of what a picture is, Seurat and the Neo-Impressionists overcame the Impressionist maxim according to which reality was transferred to the canvas as a spontaneous and individual sensation. The Neo-Impressionists no longer regarded pictures as records of snapshots, but as well-planned compositions with rules of their own. The Impressionists nervous, short brushstrokes suggesting movement and revealing a definitely individual character were reduced to dots of an almost grid-like uniformity and regularity. This new technique also went hand in hand with a systematization or elimination of the artists individual hand.
The treatment of the figure in space, which is also the central subject of the exhibition in the Schirn, is an issue running all the way through Seurats oeuvre. The artists work as both a painter and a draftsman gives evidence of his great interest in experimenting with the subject. His studies at the Academy and early drawings like Garçon des dos (Boy from Behind, 1882/83) already show the artists intense devotion to the human figure, which for him was inextricably linked with the space surrounding it. In numerous studies for his paintings, Seurat explored his figures from different perspectives, varied them, and captured them in different close-ups. Thus, he gradually arrived at the final composition of his paintings, in which he brought together the figures of his preliminary studies.
Yet even when depicted together with others in groups, Seurats figures strike us as isolated, still, and withdrawn. Their linearity and geometrization endows them with an almost abstract character. In the case of Seurat, this immobilization or frozen representation, i.e., the decision to render states instead of goings-on, evinces archaic traits and documents his study of the masters relying on linearly closed forms like Raphael, Poussin, or Ingres, to whom he had dedicated himself in his youth. His figural subjects are manifold: Seurat captured the urban bustle of Paris and life in the suburbs and made the working population the theme of his paintings and drawings. Small-size wooden panels show people sailing, anglers, or Sunday outing scenes. In his last major works he focused on the activities of circus artistes, clowns, and musicians: Le Cirque (The Circus, 1890/91), one of Seurats major works presented in the Schirn, shows the virtuoso performance of a female horseback acrobat in the manège. However, Seurats figures do not always have to be human; in his landscapes, views of cities, and maritime works, their function is, as it were, fulfilled by trees, hills, or masts.
Seurats oeuvre of drawings is of equal importance as his achievements as a painter. For almost all his drawings, the artist used a soft Conté crayon, a deep-black charcoal stick. The strokes cover the quite grainy paper as a dense web of rhythmic hatching and crosshatching, making the motif emerge or disappear as something floating and indefinite. Pronounced contrasts between light and dark shroud and accentuate the figures and lend them an unreal presence. Seurats drawings are both independent works and preparatory studies. Especially his later sheets as well as his numerous oil sketches, which, contrary to the final paintings, are often characterized by quick Impressionist strokes helped the artist find and perfect his compositions.
Seurats Pointillism proved to have a far-reaching impact on the development of Modernism. Artists like the Italian Futurists enthusiastically picked up Seurats thread and transferred his scientifically driven dynamics into the twentieth century. Bauhaus representatives raved about his unusual compositions and the geometrization of both his figures and his landscapes. Artists such as Agnes Martin found a basis for their drawing in Seurats graphic work.