The Georges Seurat exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum (may 23 – sept 7) attempts to answer the following question: what makes Seurat’s work so important?
When visiting the exhibition last weekend I found 5 ideas that answer this question for me.
- Shades of grey
The Kröller-Müller exhibition includes many of Seurat’s sketches. As if to foreshadow the history of cinema, Seurat also works in black and white before moving to a world in colour. The sketches show his excellent eye for lighting but also a meticulousness in his material choice. The rough texture of the paper used seems to bring extra depth to the shading and composition of the sketches.
- Shape of things to come
The familiarity of the sketches showed that Seurat’s signature is more than his pointillist technique. Seurat’s work is also very recognizable in the subjects, shapes of the landscapes and the shape of the figures. Several sketches suggest the figures used in later paintings, and are thus independently recognizable as works by Seurat. And now, decades later, the poster for the French film Strangers by the Lake does not echo Seurat’s techniques or colour use, but none the less reminds of La Grande Jatte.
- Art meets science
It seems as if art is often used as a way to amplify scientific concepts – think Rembrandt’s anatomy lesson. What makes Seurat interesting is that he uses science to amplify art. Seurat uses colour theory to make his paintings more vibrant: by placing dots of contrasting colours next to each other both colours are visually amplified.
- The 19th century life
Specialising in consumer behaviour, I have followed multiple courses in which the history of the consumer society was chronicled. I really enjoy how Seurat’s subject matter narrates some of the major lifestyle changes taking place in the second half of the 19th century. His painting of circuses, parks and other entertainment reflect the major increase in leisure time for many people. Many other paintings are set on the outer edges of cities – like harbours. The trends of city growth and the shift of industry from the centre to the edge of cities are clearly visible.
- Layers of Labour
Finally, the Kröller-Müller exhibition shows how layered and time-consuming each of Seurat’s paintings are. Seurat started with sketches, then he filled the painting with broad strokes (of 1-2 cm) before covering the entire canvas in meticulous dots. This labour-intensive way of working sets him apart from many other impressionists, who used rough strokes to capture an emotion.