Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Power Of Black

I admit that the discovery of photoshop for me became an obsession. The fascination of being able to imagine an image and then realize it, the tool itself became spur to imagination. I was addicted, I neglected my true passions for this increasingly too easy instant gratification.
Then my old computer died. My new computer doesn't have photoshop. I have it ready to install, but I haven't yet. Meanwhile, I rediscovered my old friends. Graphite pencils.
I forgot how much I love the act of drawing. Drawing with pencils, the use of the eraser, conte crayons, pen and ink, charcoal, pastels and oil sticks. Paper, board, the tactile satisfaction of graphic materials on good hand made paper.
I have been rediscovering the inspiration that fueled my desire. One of my early and still favorite influences is the artist Georges Seurat. Seurat is best known for his optical impressionistic paintings. He invented the technique of pointillism. He used many points of the basic colors of paint to create form, light and the perception of complex and subtle tones. His best known paintings are huge works, such as Un dimanche apres-midi a l'Ile de la Grande Jatte.
Seurat claimed to be a scientist, but if you ever read any of his writings, you realize that he was more of a conceptual thinker with a sense of humor. He was influenced by other playful neo dadaists like Alfred Jarry and a parody of philosophy called Pataphysics.
Seurat lived a short life. He was born on Dec.2, 1859 and died on March 29, 1891 of diptheria. His great paintings were from the 1880's. They are still highly influential, but he is almost forgotten as an artist who produced a superhuman volume of work on paper using Conte Crayons. Almost all of his drawings are black crayon on a specific type of handmade paper. Michallet paper is a laid paper and one side is velvety smooth and the other is tightly ribbed. Seurat preferred the ribbed side. The academies taught one to respect and to work with the paper, but not to this extent. His black brings out the ribbing, as a kind of preparatory grid, then largely effaces it. By the end, its texture creates a kind of Pointillism in black and white.
His technique enabled him to be meticulously academic or impulsive to the point of abstraction.
He lived at the time when the modern world that we understand was being created and encroaching on the natural world. Factories and industrial landscapes began to become normal. Paris had been rebuilt as a modern city. He drew cafes and theater scenes. He was able to exploit the harsh artificial light and the artifice like no other artist had before.
Emotionally, too, Seurat lives on the edge. Monet faces up to modernity well enough, more indeed than early Modernists. He also finds joy in it. His almost abstract but also deadly accurate London skies need the fog of the industrial revolution to exist. His train station, with clouds of smoke billowing up to the glass and steel enclosure, conveys excitement. Seurat's darting Conté crayon accepts the ugliness of soot, freight yards, and ragpickers. He updates themes like Courbet's stone breakers and Millet's reapers, but without ennobling them.
I find something ambivalent, too, in Seurat's point of view. He can seem not simply formal but ice cold. I cannot think of a less sexy portrayal of a woman's waist than Seurat's profiles. He rarely makes eye contact, even with his own family. At the same time, he has more intimacy with his subjects than others of his time. He allows grown-ups to toil and children to suffer.
The drawings enhance that ambiguity, which may explain why they show Seurat at his most tender, accurate, and memorable. The black casts a haze over everything, but the luminosity invites one up close to penetrate it. One feels closest of all in his portraits, including a friend at work on his own art, his mistress in near squalor, or his mother embroidering. This art invites contemplation, and that, too, can imply objectivity or intimacy. It also leaves one unsettled, like Seurat in the Zone. Instead of shades of black, one could think of shades of blackness.
It is the blackness, the sureness of the power of the crayon in his hand, the consummate skill, the lack of hesitation that draws me again and again to his work. 


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating - have always admired Seurat's paintings but didn't know of his drawings. Thanks I'll follow up. This post make me think of a great presentation I attended by by french philosopher Michel Serres, who talked about Turner's landscapes - this may be common knowledge but I'd not heard until this talk that the spectacular skies in Turner's paintings were linked with the global atmospheric 'veil' produced by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 (and the build up from 4 previous volcanic eruptions from La Soufriere to Mayon). Byron allegedly wrote "Darkness" in response to the same 'year without a summer" (1816). Given that Krakatoa erupted in 1883, I wonder if Seurat's palpable atmosopheres in his work in the 1880s are linked with the haze that shrouded Europe in the late 1880s. Munch's scream depicts similar colourful volcanic ash skies in Norway. These artists - whether inspired by atmospheric phenonomena or not - transformed through these techniques (rendering 'darkness visible') the way other artists viewed light and dark, the skies, and the space inbetween subjects (or is it objects).

microdot said...

Thank you very much for you comment. I always fear that when I write about art that I reveal my ignorance or, my pretentions, but I am only trying to express my real feelings about my passions.
I have read much about Turner and the particular atmospheric conditions of the era...some of which might be relevant, but I believe that the psychological transition, the social atmosphere of the 19th century is much more revealing.
Even a transitional artist, such as Corot, who I deeply admire had walked away from any strict interpretation of nature.
The same iconic images would be repeated over and over again in his work, like a poet or author reworking the same themes...trying to hone the truth, the emotional content of what he perceived.
But, I will freely admit that the physical world effects the psychic most art today is somehow media related...that is our physical/psychic interface.
To paraphrase Laurie Anderson, writing about art is sometimes like dancing about architecture.....