Seurat's Circus Sideshow: One Painting With A Sideshow Of Its Own At The MET
Fernand Pelez's "Grimaces and Misery" a 4 paneled gargantuan work not likely to make it in your condo's elevator almost steals the show from Seurat.
One painting does not make an exhibit. With the help of 50 other institutions and collectors from around the world the MET has assembled a host of preparatory drawings, paintings by peers including Paul Signac, an early work by Pablo Picasso and some Honore Daumier's as well as vintage posters and film footage enriching the allure in an attempt to spell out and reveal the themes addressed in the Circus Sideshow painted by Georges Seurat from 1887-8 in a unique post-impressionist style pictured below.
Seurat has done a no-no in painting. He has placed the main figure in the dead center of the work. These leads to a stilted composition, freezing movement and flattening the canvas. Indeed this was his goal and gives the works it's solemn mood and frozen music.
Among the many themes delved into deeply by both Susan Alyson Stein and Richard Thomson, the astute curators , the former hailing from the MET and the latter coming from across the pond in a green-hilled Scotland, the multi-foci exhibit from this one masterwork includes representation of urban settings, Parisian fairs, clowns, musical instruments, melancholy, stillness and the scientific study of the effects of color and line. Yet, Seurat is unique and any attempt at bringing this too young to be dead at 32 fellow in line with other artists seems futile.
Seurat stands out of history and is hard to place. Yes, the landscapes of Paul Signac are similar as seen by comparing Signac's work on the left with a work by Seurat another quintessential pointillist/divisionist painter. The subject matter was trodden on before but Seurat's paintings hold a timeless sway much like Egyptian art and exhude a melancholy and stillness unlike any other artists. In the Seurat work above the lone boater feels isolated from the sailboat traveling in the opposite direction and is divided by a triangle of lit water. The rower seems frozen in the summer lake.
This Circus Sideshow seemed to baffle the critics and peers of his day and indeed Paul somewhat hid it away after it's premier showing at the Salon Des Independents of 1888. Paul, like so many great artists of his day and like the impressionist before him could not show in the accepted Salon of the day. Many of the artist of the day who exhibited at the accepted Salons are footnotes at best in today's art history texts.
Not much is know of Paul. He was an introvert and obviously a bit disconnected. When he died of a fever at a young age his wife and child surprised Seurat's parents by showing up on their doorstep-they had not known of their grandchild nor his wife. On walks around Paris he remarked to fellow artists how the new gas lights of the day were fascinating and how colors shined from their glow. Technology plays a large roll in aesthetic works, often by giving new tools to artists but sometimes just by affording a new sight to see. Van Gogh's interior view of the night cafe (left, above) painted around the same time as Seurat's work emphasises the colors post-impressionists found in the light and shadows we often associate with just white and black.
The Paris fairs were a free for all of sort. The regular people, yes, the poor sods who made up the 99% of Parisian life, released their inhibitions at these fairs, stared at obscurities and probably got really drunk. Sounds like today's art world. As political turmoil trolled France during the era most of the Fairs were actually shut down. They had become a sort of Halloween let loose extravaganza, that, though you might not remember, was like the dangerous burn the city down Halloween nights in NYC around this time too. Yeah, no pennies for Unicef back then.
Now, to be fair there are some precursors that influenced Seurat. Millet was brought to mind by the curators and they nailed it here as is obvious from the comparison of a work by Millet on the far left above from 25 years before Seurat's work in the middle. Also Rembrandt's influence (far right), though harder to see is in the dark solemn tone of the work and in a similar chiaroscuro they both tried to achieve to elevate the work to resonate spiritually. Another hard to place artists, Puvis de Chavannes (below) comes to mind for the odd stillness he expresses and the feeling that we are both looking at fresh contemporary artwork and yet somehow at a work that seems to draw back to the past. With both artists the lights seems to come from within the figures.
The largest influence on Seurat may be the conte crayon. Working with it yields the broken surface, the mottled modeling he achieves that seems to evaporate yet hold the light still. I tried to find a link to photography and it's grainy side but there is no evidence of the influence; However, Nadar's photography studio was the home of the preeminent outsider exhibit of its day when the Salon des Refuges exhibited the Impressionist for the first time in 1874.
Among the many peripheral pieces in the exhibit is one by a young 19 year old Picasso (above, left-detail). The work reveals Picasso's genius and his ability to run through the previous movements of art history that would eventually lay the tracks for his ground braking cubist works. Daumier(above, right-detail) is mistakenly referred to and highlighted as a caricaturist, the way all scholars label him. The label is wrong. Make no mistake, Daumier was a great painter and the oils by him on exhibit show a great painter pigeon-hold by his other skills and mostly remembered for his lessor though fascinating figurative caricatures. Bonnard even pops into the show with an outside piece and not a traditional bather in the tub nor an obvious interior view the Nabis were known for. The work reveals the depth of Bonnard's sight, his Fauve talent pre-Fauvism and is a delight to spy at this show.
Head on over to the MET, for the greatest shows on this blue- green rock opening today. See the one painting and you decide if it is fodder for a whole show. Don't forget, get lost in the MET. Wander, see art you are not expecting to see, roam the rooms, take in Ceramics from early Asian dynasties, 18th Furniture, Greek vase painting, a Kouros or too with cool hair and don't miss the African art. The MET affords the opportunity for you to take in many eras of art at once and see what it is that binds disparate times and distanced lands into one story of mankind that shines bright in a time we need light.