Feature

Exhibition of the week

Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat: The DrawingsMuseum of Modern Art, New YorkThrough Jan. 7, 2008

Many great artists shone brightly and died young, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. But “even artists as famously transient as Raphael, Caravaggio, and van Gogh made it into their late 30s.” Georges Seurat died at age 31, by which time he had already done as much as any of his predecessors to transform painting. His drawings, almost 150 of which are on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, reveal “one of art history’s most remarkable growth spurts.” Most people associate Seurat with pointillism, the dot-flecked painting method he invented and made famous in large paintings of parks, circuses, and other social scenes. The more intimate drawings prove him also to be an unparalleled depicter of modern life. In these, “people rush across the pages, as if the whole town were out on an errand.” When done, they collapse on benches or lounge at cafes.

This exhibition will be an eye-opener for those familiar only with Seurat’s colorful canvases, said Lance Esplund in The New York Sun. Meticulously rendered in black conté crayon, the drawings lack the paintings’ dancing palette of color. But they share an attentiveness to light and texture. “Forms are densely solid yet strangely vaporous, as if seen through the veiled light of fog, rain, dusk, or dawn.” The artist covers each page with scribbles and cross-hatching, building up the forms at their center as if sculpting them from stone or clay. This gives his drawings of 19th-century Paris a classical coherence. “A top hat, a monkey, a parasol, a gas lamp, a high kick, and a corseted-and-bustled hourglass woman” take on the transcendent qualities we associate with medieval saints or ancient gods.

Seurat’s paintings are brilliant intellectual achievements, but his drawings are “something more,” said Mario Naves in The New York Observer. Small gestures make his figures live in ways the carefully planned paintings never do. For instance, “the way in which the crook of a back slopes into a tilted head, in Standing Women (c. 1882) evokes almost unspeakable melancholy.” The dreamy restraint of his style makes each scene “evoke half-remembered memories and flit by just as quickly.” But I could spend hours examining each small study. “To stand in front of a Seurat drawing is to believe there’s nothing else in the world worth looking at.”

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