Sunday, 12 December 2010

Que Seurat, Seurat: On Pointilliste Piffle

PARIS: The Grand Palais welcomed record crowds this summer to the exhibition (at New York’s Met through Jan. 6) memorializing the death of Georges Seurat. It was a puzzle. First of all, the Three Biggy paintings—the London National Gallery “Asniere,” the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Grand Jatte,” as well as our own Barnes’ “Poseuses”—were all conspicuously absent, all the more so because they were “represented” by life-size black-and-white reproductions. It was like celebrating Noel with neither Jesus, Mary nor Joseph.
Each institution had a different reason for no-showing: fragility (London), high insurance (Chicago), and irredentism (Merion). Maybe it’s just another sign that humongous retrospectives are on the way out, victims of their own excess.
As I was ogling the “Poseuses,” my onomastic mind started revving over the etymology of the title. Was it literally “posing,” or was it better titled “The Models?” A lean, elegantly-dressed Frenchman was sharing the frame with me, and I turned to him with a query about the meaning of the word in French.
The issue so intrigued him that he turned to a very short but equally smooth-looking Frog friend to pool their linguistic resources. It remained a moot question, but before you could say Philly, I was giving Jeff and Mutt a take on Dr. Barnes, the fortune derived from a cold medicine, and the blue-collar hassles the ex-Kensington self-made millionaire got himself into with a still-too-tight Main Line.
Jeff turned to Mutt: “You remember that black stuff we used to have to take as children? Barnes made his fortune on our poor health!” Jeff, it turns out, was the recently retired French ambassador to West Germany, and Mutt the same to Ireland. They were obviously in a state of high bumptiousness—enjoying a second adolescence, even—from their recent defection from the Quai D’Orsay.
And Barnes’ placing the control of the foundation in the hands of black Lincoln University (which, although unknown to my French friends, had graduated students like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, whom they had dealt with personally in their diplomatic lives) further intrigued them. It almost compensated for the gaps in their pleasure at the Seurat centennial.
But not me. It started me thinking. I well remember as a high point in my introduction to art the heady concept of “retinal mixture”—those light dibs and dabs of color getting together, not on the canvas proper, but on the back of the perceiver’s eye.
To this day, like Pavlov’s dog, I shift closer and farther in front of a pointilliste canvas, seeking the magic distance at which the glory is triggered. I must say, I begin to believe I’ve been a victim of ocular brainwashing.
It surprised me to learn that Seurat died at 31, wiped out by diphtheria. No wonder he had such a small oeuvre and interesting really only because of his optical schtick. At the Grand Palais, the only pleasure I really got (apart from schmoozing those D’Orsays) was perceiving the intricate class commentaries implicit in many of his paintings.
The circus audiences are the most obvious ones. They’re stratified by class—richest closest, poorest farthest away from the action, to infer from clothing and posture. But that’s not much of a visual pleasure.
And I was soon entertaining darker thoughts. I was thinking that “retinal mixture” was a load of crap. And that Modernism from first to last has been poisoned by what I can only dub pseudo-empiricism. From Monet to Pollock, the word “experimentalism” is the sacred mantra that forestalls all objections or lack of convictions.
Art, beleaguered by the rise of science and industry, has tried to shelter itself under the ideological umbrella of innovation and experiment. The trouble with this false analogy is that artistic “experiments” never seem to fail. Whatever odd turn an artist comes up with, it’s a priori significant, exacting a claim on our serious attention.
Phooey. Only a piddling handful of scientific experiments “succeed”—subject, alas, to the cruel discipline of replication.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 24, 1991

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