Under the heading Figure in Space, the Kunsthaus Zürich
presents work by one of the fathers of modern art, Georges Seurat, from 2 October 2009 until 17 January 2010. A colleague of Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Goghs, Seurat brought a scientific precision to bear on Impressionist painting. Where there was nothing but light and atmosphere he introduced rational dialogues between figures and the space surrounding them, as attested by the over 60 high-quality paintings and drawings the Kunsthaus Zürich has assembled from important public and private collections in London, Paris, New York and Washington.
Father of Pointillism
Together with Cézanne, van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat (1859-1891) is considered one of the fathers of modern art. He was also the most original of Frances avant-garde artists in the late 19th century. Seurat was born in 1859 in Paris, and when he died an untimely death at the age of 32 he had provided Impressionism with a theoretical underpinning. Stimulated by the key discoveries of contemporary color theories Seurat began to cover canvases with contiguous, schematically positioned dabs of pure color. He was satisfied to allow these dots to take on form only in the eye of the beholder. This process, which would come to be known as Pointillism, soon inspired other artists, who recognized the merits of a technique that replaced individual brushstrokes with systematically painted dots, painstakingly applied to the canvas until it resembled a web of juxtaposed points. Artistic expression thus ceded its decisive place in the painting process to the eye, which in turn required agility and schooling to produce the optical effects desired.
Figure in Space
Unlike van Gogh, Seurat was a recognized master during his own lifetime, with contemporary colleagues such as the Dutch painter and Gauguin fascinated by his choice of colors and his technique. Later generations, foremost among them the artists of the Bauhaus, raved about his unusual compositions and his imposition of geometry on figures and landscapes alike. His way with a figure in space played a key role in the French artists career, and is the central theme of a show that comprises both drawn and painted works. Although Seurat claimed that the subject of his pieces was of only secondary importance to him, viewers and art historians alike have sensed the keen interest in his figures of an artist who created works with titles like Reclining Man (1883-84), from the Fondation Beyeler, and Woman with Bouquet, seen from behind (1882-83), from another private Swiss collection. Seurat immortalized contemporary society with a cold eye in severely calculated compositions. While he may now and then have varied a particular figure, zooming in on it or combining it with a wide range of other human forms, yet he was always content to give his subjects an individual, isolated appearance, on occasion to the point of parody. His palette shows an elegant reserve. The effect on the viewer is of pleasing harmony of an art bent on imposing calm even as it stimulates and challenges the sense of sight. The eye registers a faint vibration as it traces the scenery of such key oil studies as Final Study (Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte) (1884), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Seine at Courbevoie: Study (1885), from the National Gallery in London; or Study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-85), on loan from the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection, Zurich.
Circus, Landscapes and the Eiffel Tower
Seurat began his career with drawing, and he never abandoned the medium. The intensive encounter with the human form that would become so characteristic of the mature artist was already visible in his attempts as a student, while in later drawings he was to achieve a remarkable balance between figurative contingency and technical autonomy. Pencil lines woven densely across the paper cause the subject to emerge as something vague and floating, or perhaps to vanish entirely. Striking chiaroscuro effects play about his figures, accentuating them and lending them an otherworldly aura, as in At the Concert Européen (1886-88), from New Yorks Museum of Modern Art. In Seurats paintings, too, the representation of people in space is of central importance. Another spectacular masterpiece on show at the Kunsthaus is Circus (1891), on loan from the Musée dOrsay in Paris.
Works such as The Gardener (c. 1882), from the Kunsthaus Zürich collection, and Stone Breaker and Wheelbarrow, Le Raincy (1882-83), from The Phillips Collection, Washington, can be adduced to indicate a caesura in Seurats creative career. While he had initially oriented his work to the thinking of groups like the École de Barbizon, to periods such as the Renaissance, or to fellow artists like Puvis de Chavannes, in these pieces Seurat suddenly began painting his subjects with a new technique and setting them in innovative compositions. This avant-garde rebellion would be lent further impetus in later works in which he repeated or varied forms and subjects within the same painting. Seurat transformed his pictorial space and the figures placed within it into a geometrical phenomenon, and thus followed his invention of Pointillism with further proof of his avant-garde mettle, as evinced in the brilliant Eiffel Tower (1889), on loan to Zurich from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Artists such as the Italian Futurists, Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier were enthusiastic about their debt to Seurat, and helped continue his scientifically informed work in the 20th century.