Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In Search of Seurat

I have to say that a year ago, I did not know anything about Georges Seurat. I recognized the name, knew he was a painter, but beyond that, I didn't have a clue. So my exposure to this 19th century visionary was a bit non traditional.

Most people see a piece of art, are intrigued by the work, and seek out more of that individuals pieces. If they are really interested, they'll go on to learn about the artists life, inspirations and vision. My experience was the complete reverse.

It all started when we produced the musical Sunday in the park with George at the Harrison Hilltop Theatre. The production follows Georges Seurat as he creates preliminary sketches and then creates his monstrous pointillist masterpiece A Sunday afternoon on the Il de la Grande Jatte. It provides an excellent insight into the cultural context of which Seurat created his work. Seurat was creating pointillist art half a century before it came into vogue, and with that vision came great scorn and opprobrium from his peers.

After producing Sunday, my curiosity was piqued. Then I was afforded an opportunity to travel to Paris earlier this summer. On that trip, I knew that I had to learn more about Georges Seurat.

While in Paris, we visited dozens of Museums, seeing art by DaVinci, Rodan, Monet, Latrec, Van Gogh, Dali, and countless others. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the art I saw, but at every museum, I anxiously kept my eye out for works by Seurat. I had never seen any other works by the man, but I knew I'd recognize one if I saw it. But nothing. Where was he? This was his community, after all, so shouldn't Paris be the place to appreciate his works?

I was beginning to lose hope. Finally, at Musee D'Orsay, I spied the bright primary colors on white canvas that could only be Seurat. His refusal to mix his paint created a vibrancy that contrasted with the other muted painting hanging beside it. It was a work entitled The Circus, featuring a clown, a ringmaster, and a horse. I stood there, just staring at the work, in awe of seeing this piece by Seurat, in person. I stood far back, allowing my eyes to go out of focus, perceiving only distinct shapes of color. As I slowly brought the painting back into focus, I saw the image as the painter imagined – the color and panache of the Big Top. Then I drew closer to the painting. I weaved in and out of the crowds of tourists, never taking my eyes from the clown, the horse. I got right up close, nose to nose with the ringmaster, and discovered the individual dots that made up these characters. It was as if I was looking at the cells and atoms that made up these beings – frozen in time under my microscope. I was no longer dissecting Seurat's painting, but dissecting the models he had used, to see why the clowns hair was so red, what made the horse so white. The individual DNA of the painting could be seen in the pointillist flecks of primary paint.

I stood before the painting for what seemed like hours, my eyes drawn across the canvas from one element to another. Finally my wife pulled me away and we were off to the next attraction.

So that was it? The only Seurat to be found in the entire city? This was not enough to satiate my new found curiosity for this outcast artist of the 1800's. That's when, with the help of Google Maps, I began my quest: To find the Island – Il de la Grande Jatte – the subject of the famous painting now hanging in the Art institute of Chicago.

It was a sweltering day in Paris when we set out for a northwest suburb of Paris. Two trains and about seven blocks of hiking through Parisian residential district later, we got to the island. We crossed a bridge and found ourselves in another residential district, full of apartments, soccer fields, business complexes, and what I can only describe as 'pocket parks' – a collection of benches and bushes huddled together on a small plot of grass. Surely none of these were the park we were looking for. Beginning to feel a bit distraught, we walked onward. We were beginning to run out of island. We passed a street – RUE DE CLAUDE MONET. How could there be a traffic tribute to Monet on Seurat's Island? According to the map, there was a bridge at the end of the island, so we meandered on. That's when we came to a huge wrought iron fence. On the other side – the park.

We stepped through the gates and immediately looking for similarities to the painting. Was that tree in the painting? Was this the shoreline Seurat depicted a century and a half ago? Where is the plaque paying tribute to this masterpiece? Where is the homage that George Seurat deserved? We wandered through the sizable park, past aging oaks, avoiding a group of bee keepers collecting honey. We stifled our laughter as we passed a young couple kissing on a bench. Her legs were in his lap, and he was cradling her as if she would float away if he didn't hold her tight. I imagine that they were new lovers, caught up in the Parisian bravado of love and passion. No one could tear those two apart, lest they tear the fibers of the world in their attempt.

We passed a group of men, teaching children soccer, as the women sat in the shade, drinking wine and laughing. The men were herding the children as much as they were imparting any technical skills, and the children were rollicking as they swarmed after the ball, embodying the essence of the bees we passed earlier in the park. The drone of the bees was replaced by the laughter of the children and the indeterminate murmurs of the women. The fathers needn't wear full body protection as the bee keepers did, as the worst fear was of a bruised shin, the kiss of an adoring son or daughter.

We saw a lone man reclined against the bank, throwing a ball into the water. Upon every throw, his dog would bound into the river, fielding the throw with unyielding constancy. The dog seemed to never tire of this exercise, while the man seemed as if this was his duty. His complacent expression conveyed a complete indifference to the activity. It was as if the owner knew that this was the best part of his dogs day, so he was obliged to give the canine this small gesture of his appreciation for the companionship and loyalty.

We had finally reached the park. The green space where Seurat sketched hundreds of preliminary drawings for his monumental work, Sunday in the park on the Il de la Grande Jatte. And while we hadn't found the monument to Seurat that I'd been looking for, I believe we found something better. We found a living, 21st century version of exactly what Georges Seurat saw – Families, lovers, dogs, and friends. We found the Parisian people enjoying the outdoors, taking advantage of their three to five hour lunches. Engaging with each other in ways that we often take for granted. And while it may seem mundane, we were afforded an insight into a slower, more fully lived lifestyle. One where the most important thing is the company you keep, not the company you work for. We'd found exactly what Seurat was trying to share with us.

It may have not been a Sunday, but it was certainly the perfect portrait of the park on the Il de la Grande Jatte.


  1. You're Kickin My Ass Its So Good!!

  2. Chris,

    Awesome post! You are a true artist as well...
    -- Jonathan