Magazine article The Spectator

Dots with Dash

Magazine article The Spectator

Dots with Dash

Article excerpt

Factory chimneys smoke in the distance beside the suburban river. A train puffs over a railway bridge. A couple of youths are bathing; more figures lie or sit on the bank in the mild sunlight, each separate and alone, gazing at the water. It might easily be, say, Battersea or Barnes in the days of steam. In fact, it is set in the western Seine-side sprawl of Paris, downstream from the Bois de Boulogne. We are, of course, looking at `Une Baignade, Asnieres' by Georges Seurat, one of the most familiar paintings in the National Gallery which is currently the centrepiece of the exhibition Seurat and The Bathers.

Indeed, this is such a familiar picture that we are in danger of not seeing it at all. It is to the great merit of the current show that it makes us look again, and realise not only what a beautiful work it is, but also how truly strange. After all, why paint these Parisian clerks and shop assistants, trousers rolled up, boots removed, on the heroic scale - two metres by three - of salon mythology, and in the poses of classical gods and Tritons? Why focus so insistently on this nondescript stretch of urban riverscape? What on earth was Seurat up to?

It isn't all that easy to say. He was a young man both taciturn and secretive. At meetings of the Societe des Artistes Independants at the Cafe Marengo in the 1880s, he `used to sit smoking, silent and attentive'. Surviving letters suggest that Seurat was intensely ambitious - very insistent especially on his role as the inventor of pointillism - and at the same time pedantically precise and tight-lipped (he tended to write in clipped note-form). Even with his friends, he played things very close to his chest. Nobody realised that he had a mistress and baby son until his sudden illness and early death, perhaps from meningitis, at the age of 31.

Similarly, it is not that easy for us to work out what Seurat was attempting in `Une Baignade, Asnieres', his first major work. His own account of the early period when it was painted was that it was a time dedicated to his search for an `optical formula'. He finally found that formula, of course, in his discovery of the famous dot of divided colour, an achievement of which he was jealously proud. Indeed, this statement comes from a letter to the critic Felix Feneon in which Seurat is firmly pointing out that it was he, not his follower Signac, who had originated this technique.

Towards the end of his short life it was on that objective, ostensibly scientific discipline that he put all the emphasis. Writers and critics, he remarked on another occasion, `see poetry in what I do. No, I apply my method and that's all.'

But he couldn't really have been as dry as that. As one walks around the first rooms of this exhibition, one sees that Seurat was an artist of enormously precocious, intuitive gifts. His whole being, his fellow student and friend in those early days Aman-Jean remarked, was dominated by `instinct and talent'. The proof of that is in the enormous originality and poetic power of the drawing that Seurat produced well before he had invented pointillism, indeed before he had done much as a painter at all.

Since his name is so linked with colour - skies filled with green and violet dots it comes as a slight shock to discover that Seurat started out as a great master of black and white. He was born in 1859, and in 1882, when he was 22, had developed an extraordinarily powerful graphic style. Indeed, those early drawings remain among the most powerful and beautiful things Seurat ever produced. …

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